Dressing the Dead
Starting a career in fashion and ending up, more or less, in funerals, might at first blush seem a strange progression. But like most things having to do with Pia Interlandi, it makes brilliant sense.
She seamlessly stitches together concepts about transience, transformation, ritual, self-definition, presence, and, most important, touch, to tell us a beautiful story about how to lay our loved ones to rest in a way that deeply honors our mortality.
Pia’s body of work spans many disciplines: she’s a fashion designer, a textile innovator, an artist, a professor and academic (Dr. Pia Interlandi, thank you very much), a funeral celebrant, the founder of the Natural Death Advocacy Network in Australia, a maker of unique garments for the dead, and a passionate advocate for natural burials, at-home funerals, and for the involvement of families in the dressing of their loved ones for burial.
With her dark (sometimes purple, sometimes burgundy) hair, luminous skin, and dramatic lipstick, Pia does have the air of an Edward Gorey etching about her, but in person she’s warm and quick to laugh—and a great storyteller to boot. Bevival sat down for an across-the-world chat in three parts.
b: Pia, so the first question is this: How did you come to death? Or how did it come to you?
P: When I was in school studying fashion [as an undergraduate], I had been making garments that were about transience or ephemerality—or dissection, that was a big one when I was in fourth year. The garments transformed or they dissolved, one of them had a Y incision, so I did “autopsies” on the the garment archetypes, embedding one garment within in the other. And I remember, after a time, actually coming up with the fact what I’m talking about with all this work… is mortality.
And then my initial Ph.D. proposal was about the haunting of empty garments—you know, garments where no body exists. So that was clearly about death.
But then death actually happened: my grandfather died, my nonno died, and that was it. Because I’d been working with models and fabric and clothes and dressing them, I was like, “Well why don’t we dress him?”
b: How did that thought even occur to you? I’m not sure most people would have gotten there.
P: That kind of came about because nonna had this family photo album that I would always look at, and there was the birth and the wedding and the christening and the wedding and the birth and the birth and the birth and then there was the lady in the coffin, and there was a birth so… I’d always been like ‘Who is this dead lady with all those other ladies sitting around her?’ And it was my nonna’s mum! She hadn’t been able to go back to Italy for the funeral, so the photos were how she was able to be part of it, and her sisters were sitting around and kind of touching this woman in the coffin. That had always stayed with me.
b: And it was a great experience?
P: Dressing him was amazing and cathartic and beautiful and not at all disgusting or scary or smelly or any of those things I thought could be the case. And then I was like: Why isn’t everyone doing this? Why isn’t everyone dressing their people? It was really soothing to really see and understand what dead looks like; it was so apparent that he’s not in there anymore. He no longer needed his body. And yet, it was still his body, it was still his hands, it was still his face. I hear so many people say “I don’t need to see him like that,” meaning dead, but it was actually quite beautiful.
Now, there were also all those awkward bits, that as a someone who designs clothing, I was like: How do we put a pair of pants on this man? And oh, the jacket has to go on kind of upside down, and then you flip it over, because I can’t move his arms. And the shoes. The shoes killed me, because I was like, we’re putting on these shoes—which is difficult to do—and I’m tying them up and I’m like, he’s not walking anywhere! He doesn’t need shoes! And the reality of that, plus the fact that he’s in a polyester suit, which is going to last 10,000 years before it degrades. I just thought, “This doesn’t make sense.” The act of dressing him made so much sense, but what we were dressing him in: no.
b: Which was what planted the seeds in your mind about creating clothing that would be more appropriate for funeral dressing. (More on that in PART III).
P: Yes, exactly. Well then a few months later his sister died. And she was so my great aunt, but I hadn’t known her, but my nonna had gone on and on that I had dressed my nonno—so I said if you need any help, if you want me to come and help dress her, let me know and she said I would like that. And so her two older daughters, both in their 70s, we all went into dress Paolina. And this was a completely different set of circumstance in that she hadn’t been embalmed, she hadn’t been washed, she was in the clothes that she had died in. It wasn’t in a chapel; it was a funeral director’s mortuary, so it was cold and sterile and they had no wipes or sponges or nothing to wash her with. Her mouth was wide open, her eyes were wide open, and I’m there having to feign comfort because the last thing they needed was to see me be “Ugh.” So I was all, ‘This is all very normal,’ you know, you just soothe, soothe, soothe. And then we rolled her over, to pull her dress down or something, and so of course she had liver mortis all up her back—where the blood pools after the heart stops, it looks like bruising—and one of her daughters sort of shrieked and said ‘Someone’s beaten her, someone’s beaten her!’ And I had to be all: No, no, no, everything is normal. Her heart stopped, and so everything sort of has to surrender to gravity.” And I realized that if you can explain things like that to people, you can take the fear out of it.
And so we got to the point where we were putting on her nylon tights. This was a Sunday Best outfit—I wasn’t yet designing the burial garments at this point—and someone laughed, because it’s really absurd! There are four of us trying to pull on these nylon pantyhose, and it was really funny. And then it was like, “Oh god, she would be rolling over in her grave if she could see us doing this. And then with the lipstick, it was like, “She wouldn’t be caught dead in that color.” And the mood instantly changed, and now you’ve got her daughters—who are in their 70s, mind you—giggling and laughing about stories about her and from the past. And so we all walked out feeling really, really good from having done it. It was not an easy dressing to have done, looking back now.
At the funeral, the sisters were introducing me to the priest and talking about how wonderful the dressing had been—it was embarrassing, really—and, you know: you couldn’t have sent these people in on their own to do it. It was still a confronting experience, but by having some facilitation and some explanation of things there wasn’t anything scary, and it turned into an incredible moment for all of us.
And so dressing is one of the big things I offer my clients: to come in and help them with the process, to explain things to them, and to help create space for this time that they get to have alone, with no one watching, being close to the person they love, and making space for really letting the reality of death sink in. And that the reality isn’t scary. It’s just nature.
This is the next stage: as people become more death literate, they won’t need anybody like me to say, 'Yes, you’re doing it right.' People will just know. A big goal [for me] is to write a book, with all the how-tos, and the explanations, so anyone can do it, even without a facilitator like me.
But it was the dressings that led me, as a designer, to really question why it is we bury people in clothes from the life they had been living, instead of for the reality of the burial. Its can be really tricky to dress a dead person, especially given that it’s going to be emotionally heavy. So then how do we dress them in clothing, or ritual clothing, that is physically easy? We have christening dresses, and wedding dresses, but what about for death?
PART II Making Room for Grief
PART III Garments for the Grave