Strange LDS Missionary Clothing Ritual: Is It Eco-Friendly?

guestCulture, missionary, missions 27 Comments

by Guest Poster Dr. B.

Last Sunday in church I spoke with four missionaries who told me of a strange ritual that used to be practiced in their mission.  One missionary assured me that he had personally been involved in this questionable practice.  When I was a missionary we really didn’t have any missionaries that would do something so wasteful.  But somewhere in the 1980s there developed a strange folk practice among missionaries throughout the world where they ignited parts of their clothing in a huge bonfire.  Some people would consider it a harmless practice as they would burn off parts of their clothing as a ritual sign of passage.  I am not certain myself if it is a good or bad thing since this week I attended a conference about green issues.  Only a wealthy society could consider the incineration of a tie, a shirt, a pair of pants, and a suit jacket as an item of inconsequence.

A couple of weeks prior was a missionary poster asking for ties to be sent to Peru for the poor Peruvian elders.  I wonder how many of them engage in this practice of burning off apparel as a sign of the passage of time.

There was a ward mission leader seated in the foyer when I talked with the missionaries.  I asked him if he had ever heard of missionaries burning their clothing before.  He said sure, ten years when he served a mission he burned a tie at six months, a shirt at a year, a pair of pants at eighteen months, and his suit the day before he came home.

I thought this practice was just unique to elders then I discovered that a few sisters also engage in this practice right before they came home. I actually found a photograph of one sister burning her dress.  It is amazing how they incinerate them.

I was told that they torch them with lighter fluid or gasoline.  It is a wonder to me that they haven’t burned down their missionary apartments.  I know that lots of boys are pyromaniacs.  Even I love a good fire on occasion.  I wonder why they didn’t toast marshmallows on the pyre when they sent up their burnt offerings.

After attending my seminar this week I wonder if it is environmentally friendly for missionaries to be burning their clothes.  I think if half of the 50,000 missionaries engaged in this practice there could be lots of emissions.  Not to mention how expensive a suit is.  I remember how  I spent over a thousand dollars to outfit my children for their missions.  I wonder how many parents know that the fifty dollar tie, thirty dollar shirt, one hundred dollar pair of pants and two hundred dollar Mr. Mac coat is going up in a ball of flames.

I told the one brother that I couldn’t afford to burn my suit pants because I only owned three pair of pants on my mission.  A matching pair for my two suits and a pair of blue jeans for P-Day.  If I burned either pair I wouldn’t have had anything to wear on Sunday.  In fact I was so poor after my mission I wore those ratty suits and ties for another year or two.

If I had been richer maybe I would have changed them from a solid to a gaseous state too.   I am perplexed how this custom ever started.  I guess most of them figure the burning of clothes is a way to symbolically shed time towards the day when they will go home.  After my mission I wish I had been able to stay longer or do it over again.

I do have to admit if their clothes were as ragged as mine, they probably had soggy ties or suits from the hours I spent in rain, snow and sleet.  The Mormon missionaries are like the postal service: nothing keeps them from knocking on doors.  They climb ravines, ford streams, fall on the ground, wrestle their companions.  I wonder how they even keep their suits clean for as long as they do.

If every parent could see what abuse the missionary clothing goes through, they would never spend thousands of dollars outfitting their son or daughter, as I did.  Instead, they would immediately head for the nearest thrift store to purchase a “burning suit.”

Comments 27

  1. Ooo! Fire!

    Mr Mac. Srsly. It’s like kevlar. Cheap, coarse polyester. The suit jacked survived a bike crash without a scratch.

    I did see an apartment lit on fire once, we forgot to open the flue on the fireplace.

    And $50 ties? They’ll get traded to some enterprising MBA type who has cornered the market on wide 70’s polyester ties.

  2. I never participated in any burning, but knew a lot of elders who did.

    Is it green? no. Wasteful? yes. But generally, the suits that got burned were worn nearly to shreds anyway and probably deserved to be retired.

    I am in complete agreement that missionaries should not be outfitted with top-notch clothing. Their rigorous schedule, lack of funding for frequent dry-cleaning, high likelihood that they will be riding bicycles, and their tendency for the type of shenanigans that often result in torn suits warrants purchasing the bare minimum-quality suits that will get them by. I spent at least 3x too much on suits/shoes/equipment at Mr. MAC.

  3. $50 ties? $100 slacks? I don’t spend that kind of money on my business clothes today, much less an adjusted-for-inflation amount on my mission clothing. If you really did spend thousands per missionary, you bought more and better than any missionary I ever knew. IMO, the only serious money that should be spent is on first class walking shoes. Otherwise, buying high fashion, high expense mission clothing is just wrong on so many levels.

    Elders in my mission didn’t burn clothing, but they did have a little ritual of cutting off each other’s ties the day before someone left.

    Long before I left, I was down to rotating among two skirts and three blouses, and it had been months since I had had any pantyhose. Those few items were snagged and stained and shiny from wear, with pinned hems. There was no way I ever could or would wear any piece of it ever again — “ratty” doesn’t begin to describe it. So except for what I wore while traveling, it all got left behind in an apartment stuffed with the rags left by generations of other missionaries (our apartment had been under lease by the mission since before I was born). None of the stuff left by the earlier missionaries was better than what I was wearing, and it SHOULD have been burned.

    In other words, burning clothing (or cutting it, as was done in our mission) isn’t wasteful under those conditions. It’s putting the poor stuff out of its misery.

  4. Yes, I must acknowledge that I participated in this strange ritual. And honestly, it was more wasteful of time than anything else. The suits were not fit for man nor beast. But it would take a good couple hours…hours that could be spent spreading the fire of the gospel instead of the fire of the pyros.

  5. I heard of a group of missionaries who got together to take part in a shirt burning. They thought it would be a fun idea to put the shirt on a dowel, like you hang up your sport jerseys on the wall, and hoist it up on another stick. Unfortunately, to the untrained eye this ended up looking like a burning cross. The mission president was not pleased.

  6. In my mission, we Elders burned a tie on “hump day.” We (at least the north american Elders) gave all our remaining missionary clothes to the local members at the end of the mission. I went home wearing 1 our of 8 shirts, 1 out of 4 pants, 1 out of 6 ties, etc., so did all the North American Elders I knew.

    I decided to “one up” the burning tie tradition. I burned the tie while it was still around my neck, and took picture. They turned out pretty good too. I still have my eyebrows, etc.

  7. My cousin served in a very poor country and I was happy to hear that he gave his clothing to people who needed it more than he did. He came home with just the suit on his back and shoes with holes in the soles so big that they couldn’t be given away because they were so worn out. That seems more generous and eco-friendly than burning.

  8. I don’t recall this particular clothing ritual being practiced much on my mission. We did have another clothing ritual, and that was the wearing of the same tie every day. I was a late adopter to the practice myself and so I only lasted for 6 months, however I understand that there are others whos tie endured much longer – approaching the full two years time. The cost savings on ties might make up in a small part for the terrible waste and damage that the burnt clothing has cost on this planet.

  9. It didn’t happen in the England London mission during my time (1981-81), but I have heard of it since. I don’t much like the idea and I have said so to some who have talked about it. There are much better ways to dispose of worn-out clothing. Remember that some clothes you wouldn’t wear would be top-notch to someone else.

    I was “lucky” enough to find a Mr. Mac polyester suit, that fit me, crumpled in the closet of my last missionary apartment. I had worn out my suits except one that was too impractical to wear in day-to-day missionary work. I brought that hand-me-down suit with me from my mission and wore it for a couple of years. I was dirt poor, you see (it’s not as bad as many believe).

    I second the idea that missionary clothes should be practical above everything else. We outfitted our daughter with that in mind when she left, and my wife is sewing her a new skirt to send for the winter (she’s in England).

  10. Besides questioning the wastefulness, there is also the question of legality. My wife knew some elders who went into the back alley to celebrate some missionary milestone by burning their clothing. A neighbor saw this and called the police. The missionaries were arrested and charged with arson. They ended up pleading guilty.

    This tradition might seem funny and understandable for the Utah culture (a la missionaries will be missionaries), from someone who had their apartment once burned down by an arsonist, I’d be calling the police too.

  11. Back in 1980, when I was a missionary, I suggested to an elder that he get his tie dry-cleaned, as it was showing stains from a variety of past meals. He told me that he couldn’t clean it because it was the only tie he owned.

    He was the only member of his family and had joined in high school. His family would not monetarily support him and his ward couldn’t afford much. My companion and I each gave him two ties so he could get that one cleaned.

    When my daughter left her mission in Peru (2006) she gave all her clothes to other sister missionaries and members. She brought home only the clothes on her back (and a few temple garments).

    In my mission (back in the 80s) the only thing we did to commemorate being out one year was that the companion was expected to buy you dinner on your 1-year anniversary. Imagine my disappointment, when just a few weeks before my anniversary I was assigned to be companions with an elder who had been in the MTC with me! We had to buy each other dinner on the same day. That took all the fun out of the occasion.

  12. The sisters had a much “greener” habit–when we got tired of our clothes, we just left them behind in an apartment. Then we’d go to zone conference and our old clothes would be on someone else. I wonder how long some of those dressed continued to be worn.

  13. Some in our mission did partake in this ritual. The only times I saw anyone to it though was when the piece of clothing was totally worn and worthless. I think I have one picture of my companion burning his pants. Those pants were pretty shredded.

    I guess it could be harmful to the environment.

  14. In my mission we didn’t burn anything on hump day, but since a sister’s hump day is at 9 months we made ourselves look prego to send the picture home to the parents. It was a great gag that caused a lot of funny comments when the family saw the pictures before reading why their missionary daughters looked pregnant.

  15. Well, there were some in my mission (St. Louis, MO)in the mid 90’s who did participate in this ritual. I was one of them. My pattern was 6 mo’s- tie; 12 mo’s- shirt and tie; 18 mo’s- shirt pants and tie; end of mission-completely worn pair of shoes. The only article of clothing I burned that I actually brought out with me was a pair of pants that I had on when I wrecked my bike. Sliding 10-15 feet on concrete didn’t hurt me, but my pants ended up with several holes, most notably the left front pocket area where I had my keys. Definitely not able to pay to have them repaired, so up in flames they went a few weeks later. All the other clothing was purchased at local thrift stores, supporting charities in the area I was in at the time. Most of my clothing I left for other missionaries in my last apartment. I was the fourht missionary in a row to go home from that apartment, so it 20-25 shirts, 30+ ties and four different suits by the time I came home.
    I thought it was a fun way to mark milestones and let off a little steam on P-days, which was always when I did my burning.

  16. I didn’t burn any clothing as part of a ritual, but the suits I wore on my mission were so threadbare and useless by the time I got home that I cannot explain the relief I felt wearing the intact clothing in my dresser the day I got back. Even wealthy missionaries are poor, with rare exception. The church has the ability to make every one of them rich if that were important, but even though I served in Tokyo I had to watch every yen and obtain as many goods as possible for free. Luxury is not an option as a missionary, which I think is wonderful. It brings us a little closer to Christ, who “[had] not where to lay his head.”

  17. I, as many others here, also participated in the burning ritual. I have to admit that this article sounds like it was written by a crotchety old man. With the amount of things that get burned around the world, I think that an article of clothing every 6 months creates a ridiculously small carbon footprint. All of the articles of clothing I burned were broken, ripped, or otherwise shameful to continue wearing. I would never give a native Ukrainian my stained shirt, ripped pants, or a sweat-logged tie. These are the articles that got burned by me, and hopefully any conscious missionary. It is a different story if good things are getting burned.

  18. Global warming is not proven science. In fact we have good records of a time prior to 1500 when the temperatures were very, very warm indeed. The historical accounts are backed by hard geological and biological evidence that in 1100 ad the earth was much warmer. So there were all kinds of factories pumping tons of so called greenhouse gases in the air? No of course not. But it was very warm. That is when Greenland got it’s name. I used to be green then. So why do we treat this as real? Going green is the new world religion. It certainly isn’t based on science. Can you say INDOCTRINATION one of the three facets of brainwashing as practiced by the Nazi’s and Communist?
    That aside I do think burning clothes is stupid and wasteful. Even if it is thread bare rags are a useful commodity also. I live in Mexico so I know that things Americanos take for granted can be useful. Even if waste wasn’t an issue. I think its unbecoming a missionary. It seems like you have a dislike of your mission and can’t wait to end it’s existence when you burn things associated with it.

  19. Everyone makes it sound like its some kind of religious ritual. THIS IS NOT TRUE! Its just teenage/pre-adult guys burning stuff for fun! Its tradition!! Its not mormon cult-ness! Its not wasting, because when you have 70 (yes im being serious) ties all from savers/good will for 50 cents. This is rediculous its not a ritual, not a cult, its not hating your mission and trying to get it over with, its celebrating how far youve come!

  20. I don’t know. Is burning diesel fuel eco-friendly? You are making this sound like it is a bad thing to burn a tie. I did it and I have to say it did not produce the amount of smoke that a diesel truck does in one belch from the exhaust pipe. Are you just looking for stuff to complain about? 

  21. I take great pride in selling missionaries their clothing before they leave on their missions. I try very hard to help them understand that they are wearing nice clothing now. You don’t treat it like jeans and a t-shirt.  Honestly, when I see Elders that look like they haven’t cared at all for themselves with the exception of shaving their faces, I am embarrassed for them, their families and the church.  They are ambassadors  of the Lord carrying His message. The way they look is the first message they deliver.  Their uniform is the very same as that of the quorum of the twelve and the rest of the General Authorities.  I have a problem with the idea that a 19 year old who is old enough to make covenants in the temple are somehow not responsible enough to wear nice clothing and look presentable.

  22. Elders in my mission only ever burned Nylon Tights of the younger women , they tended to be always Thick Black Heavy denier Opaque Tights .[120/200 denier] mostly worn by younger women ..

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