Dressing the dead

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Designing garments for the grave has taken Pia Interlandi, a young Melbourne fashion designer to the UK to join a burgeoning industry. However Pia’s work is not about just creating clothes to die for. She is also passionate about re-examining the ritual of saying goodbye to loved ones, of perhaps changing the way we interpret ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

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Pia is part of the natural burial movement and her interest in garments for the grave has led her to become a funeral celebrant. Part of the aim of the natural burial is ecological – to do away with deep cement lined graves, embalming fluids and wooden coffins which all slow down the process of decomposition. The clothing is another part of this. Instead of suits and dresses, Pia designs soft shroud like garments. After all, people are going to their final resting place, not to a job interview.

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The fabrics used are made of silk, hemp and linen and designed to break down easily, to allow the body to return to the earth as quickly as possible. To come up with the perfect materials, Pia undertook research as part of her PhD in fabric composition, working with a forensic scientist from Perth. They killed 21 pigs which were then exhumed periodically to monitor the decomposition process.

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Pia said the pigs were headed for slaughter anyway, but she still had misgivings about using them, however she couldn’t get access to human bodies.

Each pig was washed with a rosemary scented oil to signify remembrance. Each was gradually dressed in a garment of many layers, until the body was entirely encapsulated and ready for burial.

“Before the pigs were wrapped up in the garments, I named each,” said Pia. “This was something decided upon in the preliminary stages of the project, as I had not wanted to refer to the pigs as ‘tissue’ or ‘carcasses.’ An attachment of sorts was important. In each of the human dressings I had conducted I had known the person, so by naming the pigs it was a way to become more connected to them.

“ I was performing a ritual as a funeral celebrant, and not just as a scientist. It seemed important to remain somewhat vulnerable to grieving the deaths of the pigs; to feel the loss of their lives.

“ Their names were engraved onto a stainless steel tag which was then threaded onto one of the cords attached to the garment. This tag became another material variable in the project, but on a pragmatic level, it was a way to identify each body when it was recovered later in the experiment. A letter of gratitude I had written to each pig was included in the pocket of each garment. This notion of writing letters to be taken with the dead into the grave is a ritual suggested in a group discussion during the funeral celebrancy training I undertook, as a small, personal rite that could be performed by the bereaved. I found it profoundly valuable in my own dealing with the deaths of the pigs.”

Tonight the ABC will be screening “SOUL” a documentary about Pia and one of her human clients as part of ABC Artscape: Anatomy Arts Documentary series at 10pm.

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For more information about Pia and her work visit her website and for more information about natural burial, which is taking off in the UK but not so much in Australia yet, visit Clandon Wood.
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