“If there was no wood for a coffin when pioneers were traveling west, the deceased might have been wrapped in a quilt replacing the coffin.”- Mary Bywater Cross, Treasures in the Trunk: Quilts of the Oregon Trail
Wrapping the feed sack quilt around me, I wept silently on the lumpy mattress. Bedroom door locked. No one wanted to hear the sounds of grief. Especially young children. So I grieved for my mother’s untimely loss alone, nestled in her hand-stitched comforter.
Ours is a society that avoids dealing with death, and yet the loss of beloved friends and family members empty our emotions all too often. Miscarriage. Infant deaths. Accident, war, suicide, or drug overdose. These painful losses pile up if there is no way to find a way to express the depth of grief. Some call this act of releasing emotions as “closure”. Others call it creative coping. Perhaps it is just the act of giving memories a place to rest. A mourning quilt provides a focus for pent up feelings. A concrete way to remember the deceased.
Assembling their tools of scissors, thread, needle and cutting board, quilters organize their lives so they can organize their minds. Whether a memory quilt is created by one stitcher who lovingly lays a pattern on bits of clothing worn by the beloved one, or in community as friends and relatives gather to sew in tandem, the activity involved in the project provides healing to the bereaved. Sometimes inscriptions are embroidered on squares, or symbols appliqued on posts. The freshly bound and top stitched quilt becomes a comforter to the owner.
Several years ago, Patricia Fekete lost her father. After the funeral, Patricia selected well-worn shirts to take home with her. Her father’s familiar scent saturated the fabric, filling Patricia with his presence with each breath. The process of transforming clothing to quilt became a time of mourning for Patricia. She savored the memory that each shirt brought to her mind, and let her tears blend in with the patterns. Every pull of her needle drew the threads of peace over her frayed soul. As the stack of finished squares grew, Patricia mourned less and allowed a blanket of warm remembrance to cover her heart. As she tied the last knot on the binding, Patricia realized how much her labor of love would please her mother on her 79th birthday. The two cried on the phone together after the postman delivered the package to her mother. They were tears of joy at the memory of a well-loved man who wore the faded shirts. 1
After my father-in-law, Nick, passed away, my husband and I mourned for his cantor and wisdom in life’s circumstances. Months later, my husband’s sister, Wanda, presented us with a quilt made from the signature ties that Nick wore as a waiter in his family restaurant. The familiar old necktie patterns now stitched across neutral fabric brought back so many memories of his quick wit and sparkling eyes. Soft comfort on a cold night.
One tradition that has captivated my attention is when a favorite quilt is laid across the casket or on a chair near the family during the viewing. At one funeral, every pew displayed a quilt made by the deceased as a memorial to the beauty created from fabric in a single lifetime.
Tribute quilts can be quickly created by technology. These woven blankets incorporate Bible verses, photographs, or quotes. They are presented to the family after the funeral.
No matter how society tries to hide from death, its painful emptiness lingers. Losses need to be dealt with in a constructive manner. Creating a quilt can be the healing act that is needed to find solace and peace. A comforter that delivers a healing hug in seasons of grief.
“When an individual’s mind takes off in uncontrollable flights of anxiety or depression or grief, making a quilt redirects and soothes the mind in a safe, predictable way.”
Dr. Madeline Fernbach, Clinical Psychologist
“God does not leave us alone in despair, but provides a way to healing. The act of creating helps us tune into our great Creator and open up for His comfort.”
Mary Tatem, The Quilt of Life: A Patchwork of Devotional Thoughts
- Quilter’s Newsletter, August/September 2014, “300 Words About Quilting: Warmth from Dad”, by Patricia Fekete
Dust Between the Stitches is a novel featuring the making of a Sunbonnet Sue quilt during the Great Depression. It tells the story of Addie Meyers as she tries to save the family homestead from foreclosure while teaching in a one room schoolhouse for script. Each chapter of the book starts with a quilt pattern, many of them based on Sunbonnet Sue and Overall Sam. A picture of life in the Dust Bowl emerges in this novel that will warm your heart and inspire your faith.
Quilt photos: https://morguefile.com/search/morguefile/3/quilt/pop, https://morguefile.com/search/morguefile/6/quilt/pop, https://morguefile.com/search/morguefile/7/quilt/pop, https://morguefile.com/search/morguefile/10/quilt/pop
Very informative blog post, Cleo. I had no idea there was such a thing as mourning quilts.
I think that they are just quilts made in the time of mourning and grief.
I am so happy that we spoke this morning. Reading your blog about mourning quilts is now nudging me to pull out the bag of ties that were my Dad’s.
You’re so right about the act of creation helping with the grieving process. It gives us a way of keeping the loved one with us just a little longer until we’re ready to let. Thanks for sharing the Giovanni poem–it’s a treasure!
This makes so much sence… I can almost feel the relief of wrapping up in a quilt… at the time when one needs a quiet moment but also the hug that only a quilt can give….