Garments For The Grave
Death. It's a sensitive topic that often gets locked inside a box and buried underground. Dr. Pia Interlandi’s practice, ‘Garments For The Grave’, uses clothing as a tool to lift the taboo surrounding death. The designer works with terminally ill and dying clients to create biodegradable clothing which they are laid to rest in.
It’s time for the final dressing. Pia Interlandi stands before her grandfather’s dead body. Childhood memories flash before her. Interlandi cites this as a pivotal moment in her life. Experiencing the death of her beloved grandfather, and dressing him, birthed ‘Garments For The Grave’, a project that uses clothing as a tool to help us engage with the inevitability of death. Now known as “dressing dead people,” Interlandi’s practise advocates for environmentally sustainable death practices and seeks to empower us with death literacy.
During her Bachelor of Fashion Design at RMIT, the Melbourne-based practitioner used her interest in anatomy and dissection to experiment with dissolvable materials. This led to outcomes that explored "ephemerality, transience and mortality," and prompted the following question–when a person is buried what happens to their clothing?
During her PhD (also at RMIT) Interlandi explored how textile fibres decompose in the context of natural burials. To find out, SymbioticA, a research laboratory at the University of Western Australia, put her in touch with a forensic entomologist. The outcome was a project that analysed the degradation of different fibres on the body (of pigs). The findings showed that protein fibres, such as wool and silk, biodegrade at a similar rate to skin, whereas polyester, a common burial material, remained long after the body had decomposed and left nothing but “skeleton and polyester thread.”
Interlandi’s burial garments are completely biodegradable so selecting materials is a significant part of the process. Made predominantly from linen, cotton and hemp, the garments wrap the body, and allow for plants and roots to envelop it before the burial. Interlandi works closely with each client in determining what materials feel right to them. “Even though these people aren’t feeling the clothes when they are dead, they are feeling and imagining [it] whilst they are alive.”
The world is also running out of space to bury the dead and natural burials are helping to combat the problem. The body naturally decomposes into a skeleton within eight to twelve years compared to a metal coffin which takes over a thousand years. What’s more, according to a study by Adelaide’s Centennial Park, cremations, which now account for over 70% of Australian funerals, release approximately 160kg of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each time a body is burnt. Whilst this figure is four times higher than the carbon dioxide released in a standard burial, the ongoing upkeep that is required in cemetaries actually makes burials even worse for the environment in the long run. How we choose to bury our dead, therefore, has major environmental implications.
Unlike conventional fashion labels, Interlandi's burial clothing is personalised and the result of each burial garment is unique. Interlandi designs the wrapping; “you are packing what they love about life, and in doing that, it’s what is going to be of value to their funeral.” Some clients aspire for an element of permanency to remain, such as a song lyric, a name or a quote. “One client had this amazing [colourful] 70’s lurex tube dress, and we used part of it as a centre panel for her shroud."
When a person is buried what happens to their clothing?
In a society that longs for immortality, being constricted to a coffin may even seem like a paradox. Interlandi believes that there are “profound psychological moments in burying or cremating a body.” The ‘Garments for the Grave’ are designed to be a reflection of what is important to the dying person, and their legacy. Once dead, decisions about the disposal of the body arise. We obsess over permanency and preservation. For decades Western media has sold us false dreams of immortality. We talk about living well, but when will society think about dying well?
According to Interlandi seeing the body degrade is the most confronting aspect of death. She believes that “giving families time to mourn the physical loss before laying the corpse to rest allows for a stronger connection and an ability to let go of the physical entity and engage [with death].” The family can observe the physical changes. The skin turns red and brown. The eyes appear hollow. The stillness is surreal. The subconscious mind plays visual tricks. You can become convinced that the body may have twitched and is still alive. The current burial system in the West does not accommodate for intense emotional responses, as we psychologically come to terms with the transition of a living person to a dead body.
The most effective method to engaging with death, according to Interlandi, is through conversation; “we are looking at death but not using the ‘D’ word.” By speaking with clients about burial clothing, it creates a conversation and guides them through death by celebrating life. “Language [about death] is changing to give people death-literacy across society.” Interlandi’s practise uses something spoken about, fashion, to address something avoided, death. Perhaps the most comforting notion is that there is no closure, it is more about “how you live carrying someone who has died.”
Interlandi’s final message is to not shy away from talking about death. By acknowledging it, the dying process becomes less of a taboo. Death elicits grief, challenges personal perceptions, and can lead to irrational decisions. Yet death is a continuation of life and energy. There are “no flaws in nature, only human interference,” according to Interlandi; nature has evolved over millions of years to recycle us, and humans are the only ones who resist it. Her passion also extends beyond ‘Garments For The Grave’. Along with a celebrant and holistic funeral director she co-founded the Natural Death Advocacy Network (NDAN) in 2014 which has 150 members who work with death and dying, and offer consultations about natural burials.
Evelina Kaganovitch is a fashion designer who currently focusing on using her e-voice to craft stories as a freelance writer and contributor. Apart from coffee and turtles, Evelina’s main interests are in sustainability, fashion and anything slightly left of centre.
We talk about living well, but when will society think about dying well?