A figure inexpressibly thin and pathetic, of a dusty leaden colour, enveloped in a shroud-like garment, the thin lips crooked into a faint and dreadful smile, the hands pressed tightly over the region of the heart.
“Lost Hearts,” M.R. James
Recently I’ve been digging up the dirt on burial shrouds, trying to determine exactly what the well-dressed corpse was wearing and when. While there is no doubt a certain esoteric charm in studying Z-spun tabbies and shrouding flannels, what I found even more fascinating was the ghosts who appeared clothed in their grave-clothes, often of a markedly archaic pattern. Andrew Lang gives us an striking example:
The most impressive spectre he [Andrew Lang] had ever heard of, he says, in substance, appeared in an English village. Half a dozen children who had been playing together in a house rushed out through the open door in a frightened state of mind, and one of them fell down in a fit. A lady who was driving through the village stopped, attended to the child who was lying on the ground before the horses, and asked the other children as to the cause of the panic. They said they had been playing on the staircase when “a dreadful woman” suddenly appeared among them. The only reason they could give for saying that the woman was dreadful was that she wore a long woolen robe and had her brow and chin bound up with white linen. “In fact,” says the writer, “she was a walking corpse come back from the days when the law compelled us to be buried in woolen for the better encouragement of the wool trade. This wandering old death, seen in the sunlight by the children, has always appealed to me as a very good example of ghosts and of their vague and unaccountable ways. For it is most unlikely that the children knew anything of the obsolete law of the ancient English mortuary fashions.” Religio-Philosophical Journal 7 February 1891: p. 578
“Buried in woolen” refers to the Burial in Woollen Acts of 1666-1680, requiring burial in a shroud of pure English wool. The acts were resented and were largely ignored after the late 18th century. They were repealed in 1863. Obviously the walking dreadful woman was one of the unhappy woolen-shroud wearers.
Some of you may be familiar with the statue of John Donne depicted in his shroud, which is knotted on top of his head, as pictured in the engraving above. This ghost, seen in a church chancel, presented a virtually identical appearance, as well as making a curiously incongruous rustling noise.
Out of the Long Ago
In 1907 my late husband and I were visiting some friends when the subject of ghosts arose in conversation. My husband did not believe in spirits appearing from another world. I did, for I had seen my father who had, at the time, been dead over twelve months. He also spoke to me. I knew I was awake when I saw the apparition, for I awoke my husband to tell him, as I was frightened. As soon as my husband spoke, the apparition vanished. My mother also saw my father’s spirit twice, and she was the least imaginative of women. My husband’s friend, a young man of about thirty-two, said he believed in ghosts, for he himself had seen one when a boy. He then went on to elate the following remarkable story. I have put it down just as he gave it, without embellishments of any kind. “When I was about twelve or thirteen,” he said, “I visited some relatives in a village near London. About eleven o’clock one morning, I went with the vicar’s two boys, with whom I was friendly, to get a book from the vestry of the church where their father officiated. The elder of the two boys went to get the book, whilst the younger one and I went down the aisle to wait, and to pass the time until the book was found. Hearing a sound, I thought my playmate was coming for us, and looked up towards the chancel. Walking across the chancel I saw a tall figure shrouded in a sort of blanket affair, dull and drab and gathered on the top of the head, and tied in a bunch from which it hung down in folds over the figure, which was walking or gliding toward the vestry door. There was no sound of foot-falls, but, as the apparition moved, it made a sort of rustling noise, like walking amongst dry withered leaves. Thinking some one was playing a trick I followed, hoping to see the fun, but the figure vanished at the vestry door. I looked inside and asked my friend, who was not quite ready to leave, if any one had been into the room, and told him what his brother and I had seen. He answered that he had not seen or heard anything unusual. The church, for certain reasons, was always, except when in use, kept locked. My playmate of the church aisle was full of our adventure, and he told the vicar what we had seen. He strictly forbade us to repeat the story to any one, and went on to say if we did he would be exceedingly angry. His reason for keeping such a tale secret was obvious. When I grew up to manhood,” the narrator continued, “I received a letter one day, from a gentleman who lived, or had lived, in the village where I had seen the ghost in the church chancel. He enclosed me a sketch of the apparition, which he himself had seen when about sixteen years of age. He wanted to know if the drawing was like the figure I had seen. I wrote that it was exactly the same, except for the side face, which I did not remember to have seen. The side face was thin and keen, and the nose thin also, and very prominent. The writer went on to explain that he had heard I had seen the ghost and, like myself, in the broad daylight, and that he was very interested in looking the matter up.”
“In 1911 we called to see the relator of this story, when he at once mentioned that there had been further development in his ghost story. The gentleman who had sent him the sketch had written to inform him that the apparition had again been seen. He was inquiring the time and date of the previous appearances as he was anxious to ascertain if the uncanny visitor came at stated intervals. The shroud that covered the ghost was probably one of the very old-fashioned shrouds that used to be tied on the top of the head. Uncanny Stories Told by “Daily News” Readers, S. Louis Giraud, 1927: p. 30-31
Sometimes even the minutest details of the shroud were noted by a witness.
The following is one of the most remarkable of the ghost stories in Sir David Brewster’s late book:
About a month after this occurrence, [the appearance of her husband’s doppelganger] Mrs. A., who had taken a somewhat fatiguing drive during the day, was preparing to go to bed, about eleven o’clock at night, and, sitting before the dressing-glass, was occupied in arranging her hair. She was in a listless and drowsy state of mind, but fully awake. When her fingers were in active motion among the papillotes,[papers for making butterfly curls] she was suddenly startled by seeing in the mirror, the figure of a near relation, who was then in Scotland, and in perfect health. The apparition appeared over her left shoulder, and its eyes met hers in the glass. It was enveloped in grave-clothes, closely pinned, as is usual with corpses, round the head, and under the chin, and though the eyes were open, the features were solemn and rigid. The dress was evidently a shroud, as Mrs. A. remarked even the punctured pattern usually worked in a peculiar manner round the edges of that garment. Mrs. A. described herself as at the time sensible of a feeling like what we conceive of fascination, compelling her for a time to gaze on this melancholy apparition, which was as distinct and vivid as any reflected reality could be, the light of the candles upon the dressing-table appearing to shine full upon its face. After a few minutes, she turned round to look for the reality of the form over her shoulder; but it was not visible, and it had also disappeared from the glass when she looked again in that direction. On the 26th of the same month, about two P. M., Mrs. A. was sitting in a chair by the window in the same room with her husband. He heard her exclaim, “What have I seen?” And on looking on her, he observed a strange expression in her eyes and countenance. A carriage and four had appeared to her to be driving up the entrance-road to the house. As it approached, she felt inclined to go up stairs to prepare to receive company; but, as if spell-bound, she was unable to move or speak. The carriage approached, and as it arrived within a few yards of the window, she saw the figures of the postilions and the persons inside take the ghastly appearance of skeletons and other hideous figures. The whole then vanished entirely, when she uttered the above-mentioned exclamation. The Schoolmaster, and Edinburgh Weekly Magazine, Volumes 1-2, John Johnstone, Publisher, 1832: p. 221.
If the date on this story wasn’t much too early, we might suggest that Mrs. A. had been to Paris’s Cabaret du Neant and seen the coffined living decomposed to a skeleton and back in just minutes! To be Relentlessly Informative, the “punctured pattern” was an eyelet-like effect punched in the cloth with pinking irons. It was a cheap way to achieve a lacy look for grave-clothes and linens.
In some variants of this next story, which was a popular urban legend, the ghost was recognized by a particular detail of the shroud.
A woman not far from Emly, buried her husband, a few months ago. A knock came to the door some night last month. She asked who was there. A hollow voice answered, “I am your husband, whom you buried, and I am very miserable in purgatory till my debts are paid. Sell the two pigs you have, and be sure you have the money for me on such a night when I call.” The poor woman did as he required, and felt happy at being able to meet his request, either through fear or love (as he appeared with his shroud and pale face.) Between the first and second visit of the ghost, the poor woman went and told her story to the priest; he told her it was all very good, but at the same time to have two policemen in the house when she would be giving the money. Accordingly, after getting the money, the purgatorial and shrouded ghost came and was arrested by the police and lodged in Limerick jail, there to undergo a little more purgatory till his trial comes on. This ghost turned out to be a near neighbor, who is god-father to one of her children. The Weekly Vincennes [IN] Western Sun 15 March 1862
In this account from the séance-room, an apparition draws attention to her burial robe as proof of her identity.
The next one who appeared was Mrs. Mary Ann Waugh, wife of the late John M. Waugh, of Rock Island, who died about thirteen years ago at this place; a sister of Mrs. Hill’s, and also sister of mine. The test in this case was remarkably good, principally in her general appearance of features and the manner she used to wear her hair, and some peculiarity in her burial robe, in the material used, and something very peculiar in the style and make, which she seemed very desirous of my wife seeing, as she assisted in the making of it. Religio-Philosophical Journal 20 March 1875: p. 2
The shroud was also regarded as an infallible, if nuanced, death token in stories of second sight, presenting a sort of sliding scale of death.
The event was usually indicated by the subject of the vision appearing in a shroud, and the higher the vestment rose on the figure, the event was the nearer. ‘If it is not seen above the middle,’ says Martin, ‘death is not to be expected for the space of a year, and perhaps some months longer. When it is seen to ascend higher towards the head, death is concluded to be at hand within a few days, if not hours, as daily experience confirms. Examples of this kind were shewn me, when the person of whom the observation was made enjoyed perfect health.’ Domestic Annals of Scotland from the Reformation to the Revolution, Volume 3. Robert Chambers, 1861: p. 290
This seeress predicted the death of a young boy without giving her reasons. After his death, she explained what she had seen:
I carried the boy’s corpse aboard with me, and, after my arrival and his burial, I called suddenly for the woman, and asked her, what warrant she had to foretell the boy’s death? She said, that she had no other warrant, but that she saw, two days before I took my voyage, the boy walking with me in the fields, sewed up in his winding sheets, from top to toe: and that she had never seen this in others, but she found that they shortly thereafter died: and therefore concluded, that he would too, and that shortly. Light 9 February 1889: 66-67
One of these seers had his vision calibrated to a nicety.
Two seers at work, one a gentleman and the other ‘a common fellow’, who were both visiting the manse of an Inverness minister. All at once the common fellow began to weep and cry out that a certain sick woman about five miles away was either dead or dying.
The gentleman seer—naturally the expert—replied, ‘No, she’s not dead, nor will she die of this disease.’
‘Oh?’ said the fellow. ‘Can’t you see her covered in her winding sheet?’
‘Aye,’ replied the gentleman, ‘I see her as well as you do, but do you not also see that her linen is wet with sweat? She will soon be cooling of her fever.’ And so it turned out. The Revd Hector Mackenzie vouched for the story’s truth. Ravens and Black Rain: The Story of Highland Second Sight, Elizabeth Sutherland, p. 62
Shrouds seen via second sight might not only predict a death, but the form or color of that winding sheet.
“Florence MacLeod, spouse to the present minister of St. Kilda, informed me lately, that her mother Elizabeth MacLeod, a gentlewoman distinguished from sevrals for piety and good morals, having come out of her house at Pabbay in the Harris, with a clear moon-shining night, and having sat down to enjoy the pleasure of a calm serene air, and the beautiful prospect of a glittering starry firmament; both of them observed a domestic girl, who had been a native of St. Kilda (they had left the house), issuing from it, covered with a shroud of a darkish colour, and stalking across the distance betwixt them and the house as if she intended to frighten them, and after continuing in this manner for some time, disappeared. Upon their return to the house, the said Elizabeth, challenged the girl for her frolick, who affirmed, with many asseverations, she had not left the house all the time her mistress and daughter were absent: to which the other servants gave testimony. In a short time thereafter, the same girl died of a fever, and as there was no linen in the place but what was unbleached it was made use of for her sowe, [winding sheet] which answered the representation exhibited to her mistress and the declarant as above.” Light 9 February 1889: 66-67
Today, although shrouds are making a comeback in the context of green burials, most people go to their final rest in their own clothing. Although I haven’t done a scientific survey, I’ve heard from people who have seen apparitions of friends and relatives wearing the same clothes they were buried in. That would not be particularly remarkable–if you saw the clothes at the viewing or funeral, you might picture the visitation wearing those clothes. Where that logical argument sometimes breaks down is when the witness did not go to the funeral or have any information about what the dead person wore in their coffin, but could describe the burial clothing anyway. Such anecdotes reopen the whole question of why ghosts are seen wearing clothes and why, if, as some psychic researchers used to suggest, the dead can project whatever image they want to those they visit, they choose to wear their last outfit?
Other stories of ghosts in grave-clothes or burial garments? chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com
I’ve written before about shrouded specters and superstitions involving shrouds.
Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead. And visit her newest blog, The Victorian Book of the Dead.