What will your final outfit be? It’s a question the Australian researcher, designer and facilitator Dr. Pia Interlandi has thought about a lot. After doing a PhD that explored dress and ephemerality at Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, where she is now a lecturer in the School of Fashion and Textiles, she had an awakening while dressing her dead grandfather in 2008.
“I hadn’t contemplated actual, real death until my grandfather died,” she told us. “I dressed him for his funeral and went, wow, this is incredibly cathartic.” But while the experience was beautiful, it left her with some practical concerns. “I dressed him and was like well, nothing drapes the way it’s meant to,” she says. “All his clothes were really designed for a vertical, living body.”
Still, she found the experience valuable enough that she thought, “Why aren’t more people doing this? It’s his body, it’s not like he’s a zombie or disgusting.”
That led her to turn from theoretical work about dress and the dead to creating garments actually meant for dressing the dead — preferably starting with their input while they’re still around.
She started a practice called Garments for the Grave, which involves designing custom biodegradable burial clothes alongside clients and their families. Her work has since been featured in several documentaries — including an ABC Artscape production called “Soul” that screened across Australia — and at institutions including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which commissioned her to create a “Little Black (Death) Dress.”
Death on Mars
Recently, her projects have taken her in a new direction: space. Earlier this year, Interlandi designed a garment for death on Mars. The project was connected to Sensoria I, in which an all-female crew of scientists spent two weeks in a Mars-like habitat on the slope of a volcano in Hawaii. Each night, the commander of the mission, a bioengineer and artist named J.J. Hastings, slept on a pillowcase imprinted with the words “Upon my death, here is everything you need.” Inside was a ritual death outfit that Interlandi had designed.
Made of four layers, the Martian death garment is meant to serve as part of a ritual that would allow crews in space — far from supplies necessary for more traditional funeral activities—to actively mourn a dead friend and colleague. The setup includes an undergarment, decorative second layer, gauzy covering for the head, and a large veil that wraps around the body. All are easy to put on a stiff corpse, but more importantly, the multiple layers allow crew members to get close to and touch their dead, a practice Interlandi strongly believes is important and healing.
The Martian getup is made of various types of silk, which means it’s protein that can be dissolved and recycled alongside nutrients from the body, using a technology Hastings is still developing. The re-use of resources will be key on Mars, Interlandi notes, and her garment offers a chance to both engage with the dead body and make the most of its own nutrients in a closed environment.
Having the talk
Interlandi sees her garments in large part as conversation-starters.
“The garments are a tool; the making of them is a tool to discuss death and values,” she explains. “We all engage with fashion, and we all have preferences about materials, color, and light, and all of those things tell you about how your body exists in the world. It’s a friendly conversation to start talking about death. That whole ‘I wouldn’t be caught dead in that’ — well, what would you be caught dead in?”
Having that conversation with family and friends can be a gentle entry point into a larger talk about final wishes. It’s a talk that Interlandi encourages families to have long before the end, when emotions can make it hard to make informed and healing choices. “There are wills, advance care plans, financial stuff, but the emotional will establishes what you value, and you can start that with clothing,” she explains.
Interlandi isn’t the only artist thinking about death and final garments. In 2013, the Seattle fashion designer Mark Mitchell created a luxurious nine-piece collection of clothing for the dead made primarily out of cream-colored silk. The work, he said, helped him process grief around the AIDS crisis.
But the biggest conversation-starter in this space is usually the mushroom burial suit. In 2011, the artist Jae Rhim Lee appeared in a hit TED talk describing a pajama-like outfit she’d created that was seeded with mushrooms to aid in human decomposition.
Today, the Infinity Burial Suit is a real product for sale. It includes a built-in biomix of mushrooms and other microorganisms the company says can “neutralize toxins” and more effectively deliver nutrients to surrounding plants. While some natural burial advocates have questioned the efficacy and necessity of the product, there’s no question the suit has spurred meaningful talk around death, the environment, and final wishes. Last year, the 90210 actor Luke Perry was even buried in one.
Several other companies also make slightly more prosaic shrouds suitable for natural burial, too. Kinkaraco shrouds, which debuted in 2005 on Six Feet Under, come in options that include special straps for lowering a body directly into the earth. They can be made in cotton or linen, or, for a more deluxe option, silk harvested from recycled saris and lined with fragrant herbs. Vale Shrouds are made of a cotton/hemp blend with maple wood rings, while the options at Last Dance Shrouds include a burial garment made out of recycled shirts. You can even send in your own fabric — think a favored quilt or tablecloth — to be incorporated.
Fashion and the future
Currently, Interlandi is thinking about garments that would be suitable for use in newer body disposal methods like recomposition (also called human composting) or alkaline hydrolysis. The latter, which uses an alkali solution and heat to fast-forward the natural decomposition process, generally involves bodies going in naked, says Interlandi. But that can bring up concerns about dignity, and it removes an opportunity for ritual, she notes. A protein-based garment that can be dissolved by the chemicals used in alkaline hydrolysis just like a corpse could be a solution.
Interlandi will also soon launch The Interland, which she describes as “design for a place between this [one] and the next.” The product line will include several blank garments meant to support families and end-of-life facilitators to create beautiful final memories by embellishing them together. “The magic is getting together with your family, and painting, decorating,” she explains. “Sitting down to make something for this corpse, with that future corpse, generally is the best way to do it.”
The process can involve color and paint, being outside together, perhaps making a mess. The whole thing moves people away from the clinical, medical side of dying, she says, and into a place where people create something special and personal.
But, she says, you also don’t need to purchase her products — or anyone else’s — to create special burial clothes. “What are the bedsheets you’ve held onto for years, what about the curtains? What are the tactile things that you’ve held onto, and why have you held onto them?” she asks. Favorite garments can be unpinned and resewn if they no longer fit, perhaps used as panels in something larger, as Interlandi has done with several clients. “Use the colorful cotton sheet from your kids’ bed that you used to keep. Everyone has those throw rugs and pillows … [just] try to avoid polyester, nylon, acrylic, from a biodegradable aspect.”
Whatever you do, she says, make it something you love. “This is the last thing that you’re going to have against your body. It is the last thing that your family will see you in and associate you in.”
In an odd way, the creation — and even the wearing — of a death garment can be something to look forward to. The final outfit is “more special than your wedding frock,” she says, “because it’s the one that everyone’s going to have.”
Bess Lovejoy writes the ‘Future of Death’ column for Hellalife (formerly Considerable). She is the author of Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses. She has written about death and unusual history for The New York Times, Lapham’s Quarterly, Smithsonian.com, Mental Floss, Atlas Obscura, and elsewhere.