The Death Letter Project
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Helen Dunne | Burial Shroud Maker / Carer

Death impacted upon my life at the age of eight. I recall watching all that was happening around me; peoples’ stoic responses, the funeral mass, seeing my brother’s body, and being on the periphery, isolated from the death of my teenage brother. This feeling was repeated when I was 19 years old when another brother died at the age of 28 in a car accident. 

It wasn’t until the death of my father when I was 48 years, that I first experienced the pre-stages of death. I was present when my father altered from the person I thought I knew to a resignation of pure spirit. It felt sacred. I conversed with him without words. Breath was palpable within me when his ceased. The inexplicable presence of him that I felt when he died could not be conjured even if I tried.

It was an instinctive response to dress my father in a shroud in the absence of clothing for his burial and was the seminal moment for Shroud Memento. As I started the shroud without a design it soon became an invitation for family to join in, then relatives and friends that came to show their respect. They participated by stitching, drawing, or writing as we conversed about my father, forming a powerful union of emotion and connection between those who contributed and gathered.

Detail of Helen adding stitches to a burial shroud.

The making of my father’s shroud taught me that our personal contribution to ceremony is important if we’re to experience death in a profound way. To be present during the stages of dying and to observe how others respond to death is intrinsic to understanding death/life cycle.

My mother died two years after my father and I was with her in the week before and during her death. Again, observing the stages from pre to post death is unparalleled to any experience I’ve had; being acutely aware of vital things around me and the stillness felt when she stopped breathing. Four years following, my youngest brother died by his own doing. I was denied seeing his body yet keenly felt him in the air, the rain, and the clouds. 

Cloth symbolises the weave of connection from one thing to another, one person to another, between the living and the dead. 

The shroud work that I do with people is used as a means to invite the bereaved to express feelings about a loved one, shared with family, friends, even the broader community, as that which is felt within can be symbolically expressed onto the cloth. The cloth makes tangible that which has become intangible

I believe: that shared stories are crucial to accepting death as natural, being present with the dying will show us pure love, our experience of death will always be different and yet the same, welcoming life into the world and when it departs is fundamental to understanding the human condition and life, and when a person dies, like vegetation it decomposes then becomes that which produces some form of new life.

- Helen Dunne


Editor's note: Helen Dunne is the Founder / Creative Director of Shroud Memento, whose mission is to assist bereaved people in creating and decorating a cloth shroud for their loved one - as an expression of their love and an alternative to dressing the deceased in clothing. Further reading...

The Death Letter Project welcomes your comments and feedback. Please feel free to leave a comment on our Facebook page or alternatively submit a message below.

  • Beautiful piece. Beautiful cloth. Beautiful motion x - Hannah Dunne (Facebook)
     
  • Lovely. - kwirky369 (Instagram)
     
  • Thanks - so interesting. - dorothearatcliffe (Instagram)
     
  • This is a really beautiful letter. - Shirley McConnell McAuley (Facebook)
     
  • So bravely and beautifully expressed, Helen. X - Susan Terravecchia (Facebook)
     
  • Really beautiful, Helen. ✨🙏 - Phillippa Dancer (Facebook)
     
  • Yay Helen! - Hayley West (Facebook)
     
  • Wonderful Helen ❤️ - Jumave - Planning for ourselves, Caring for our own (Facebook)
     
  • Very interesting and very neat scriber - Fern Smith (Facebook)