Dressing your loved one for their final rest

5 min read

Tips for choosing a burial outfit

  • Many people choose their own burial outfit before they pass away.

  • Cultural or religious tradition can serve as a guide.

  • For green funerals, only 100% biodegradable elements can be buried.

  • If the choice is yours, choose practical clothing that fits your loved one’s personality and style as you remember it.

  • The more “like themself” your loved one appears, the easier it is to grieve and process.

Her favorite dress. His football jersey. A bespoke suit. Or a simple shroud. Choosing clothing for a loved one’s final rite of passage is part of an ancient tradition, one that can help us process our pain. But that doesn’t make it any easier. Tough decisions are even harder when we’re in the throes of grief. As you take on the task of determining how your loved one will be dressed for burial, remember that any choice you make will honor your loved one and the life they lived--and help all they loved honor them, too.

Following their wishes

Sometimes, a blueprint is already in place. Many people choose their own burial outfit before they pass away. For others, a cultural or religious tradition serves as a guide.

Aretha Franklin chose a spectacular outfit for each day of her own four-day funeral, each with its own symbolism and dramatic impact. It’s likely that your loved one wasn’t quite so lavish, but if they left instructions on what they wanted to wear, try your best to follow them. Some people are subtle about making their choices known, so you may discover an outfit set aside in their closet or a note left for you to find. If your loved one stipulated a green funeral, only 100% biodegradable elements can be buried with them, and they may have had a specific shroud in mind.

In both Islam and Judaism, funeral shrouds are the norm. There are careful rituals and rules for enshrouding those who have passed. If you’re unsure whether your loved one wanted to be buried according to these traditions or more secularly, check in with other friends and family who might have approached shared religious practices with a similar mindset to your loved one.

When the choice is yours

Operating without guidance from your loved one or a religious tradition when making choices about a burial outfit can be more difficult. This is especially true while you’re planning other aspects of a funeral at the same time. If you have no idea where to start, it’s good to keep in mind that the conventional approach is to choose clothing that your loved one would have worn to a funeral or a wedding. If they come from a more traditional family or culture, this is most likely the expectation, whatever their personal style preferences might have been.

But, outside of religious, traditional, and practical considerations, there aren’t a lot of rules about how to dress your loved one for burial. If you plan to hold a viewing—a chance to say goodbye to your loved one—their clothing can help you and the community come to terms with their passing. Often, the more “like themself” they appear, the easier it is to process what’s happened and grieve. Here are some guidelines to help you tackle the task:

  • Consider style and lifestyle. Did they love to get dressed up? Or did they prefer ripped tees and biker boots? Were they adventurous or conservative? One older woman might have chosen a prim dress suit, while another would have opted for a casual, flowing sundress. Still another might have preferred to be buried in her formal military uniform. If you have an idea of how to capture their style, don’t worry too much about perfection. If it fits their personality as you remember it, then it’s right. 

  • Keep it practical. Sometimes your loved one’s personal style tended toward overly revealing or rigid, tight clothing. Setting aside ideas of taste and discomfort, practically speaking, these garments don’t work for this situation. Choose a top or a dress that covers the collarbones, and avoid any tight clothing that isn’t highly elasticized.

  • Use the right size. Illness and injury might affect how clothing will fit your loved one. Check sizing and provide options to your funeral home if you’re uncertain. For fit and ease of dressing, clothing can often be cut or altered, so there will be some leeway.

  • Purpose-built options. While they’re more generic than your loved one’s own clothing, burial gowns and dresses are designed to be a dignified and easy solution.

  • Accessories and jewelry. Include the personal accessories that your loved one normally wore or might have worn for a special occasion. Don’t forget everyday items like wigs, glasses, shoes, socks, and underwear. But make sure to request the return of anything you would like to keep or pass on. And take care when it comes to jewelry or valuable heirlooms: these are part of your loved one’s estate and most likely cannot legally be buried. This can become a contentious issue; make sure to work with the family if you’re considering including items like these in the burial. It can be hard to imagine a future where these items aren’t with your loved one, but they will also bring you comfort as you grieve and remember.

It’s hard to contemplate right now, but the care you show your loved one in choosing burial clothing will not only help you grieve and say goodbye, it will also help all those they loved to do the same. It’s a ritual that pays tribute to the bond you shared—a bond that will endure well beyond these difficult days.

You may be eligible for free bereavement support. Empathy can help with everything from funeral planning to estate administration, with step-by-step guidance and real-time expert support. Many people get free premium access to Empathy as a benefit with their life insurance claim. We partner with New York Life, Guardian Life Insurance Company, Bestow, Lemonade, and other leading carriers. When you make your life insurance claim, talk to your representative about whether Empathy is a benefit they offer.