Postmortem Pampering:
Rituals and Practices of Dressing the Dead

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“The burial garment is the last skin that will be placed upon us, and will literally and symbolically merge with us in our decomposition and dissipation into the earth.”

—  Pia Interlandi

What we wear during important life transitions matters. Chelsey Ramer, an Alabama high school senior, found out the expensive way, after being fined $1,000 for wearing an eagle feather on her graduation cap earlier this year. Although she knew of the risk beforehand, participating in the spiritual and cultural ritual of wearing the feather as a symbol of her heritage as a Poarch Creek Indian was worth the controversy that ensued.

Another type of graduation involving intricate dress codes and evolving practices is the one between life and death, and fashion designers, religious devotees, morticians and funeral directors alike are offering ways to reclaim and update traditional burial options.

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Hollywood forever cemetery (during film screening, at left) | Photo: Jose Zakany
 

Tyler Cassity, who consulted for Six Feet Under and is the cemetarian responsible for Hollywood Forever’s beloved Cinespia screenings and concert series, imagines a melding of mortuary methods: post-cremation burials where remains are used to plant oak trees, meadows, or butterfly habitats in honor of the deceased. Creator of the “Ask A Mortician” YouTube series, Caitlin Doughty, also embraces eco-friendly alternatives, but only after reclaiming the rituals of washing and dressing deceased loved-ones, which come under the mortician’s job description. Although the family usually chooses the outfit they want to remember the departed in, the mortician often does the dressing and provides any final touches needed to capture the memory of  the dead for the funeral and burial.

With cremation on the rise as the passage-of-choice for more and more Americans, morticians’ work will be less public in the next few years. Regardless, these three rituals for dressing the dead remain alive and well at home and around the world:

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1. Decorating the fallen

Although photographing the coffins of America’s war dead was legalized a few years ago, only recently have we gotten a glimpse of the decorated display inside them. Almost every one of the 6,700+ known soldier fatalities from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have passed through the Air Force’s Dover Port Mortuary in Delaware, where the remains of the fallen are meticulously washed, embalmed, reconstructed, dressed, and donned with a thoroughly researched and customized ribbon-rack of appropriate badges, medals, patches and ribbons. The 60+ employees at the prestigious mortuary take their stylist jobs seriously, down to ironing the perfect creases into each uniform, even when the remains are slated for cremation or a closed casket funeral.

 

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2. Shrouding with love

Both Jewish and Muslim traditions offer an intricate burial process that ends with shrouding the devoted in white. The Jewish ceremony, known as a tahara, resembles a three-act play, marked by cleansing, purification, and dressing. The 24 quarts of water poured continuously over the body during purification represents the washing away of suffering, and the white linen shrouds with no hems or pockets symbolize impermanence and the inability to bring worldly goods into the next life. Similarly, the Muslim ritual begins with cleansing, but this time with seven repetitions of washing the body with cloths from top to bottom and left to right. The shrouding of the Muslim female body involves a sleeveless dress, veil, and loin cloth underneath three white sheets and four ropes. Both religions complete the ritual by standing over the cocoon-like shroud in prayer before burial.

 

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3. Biodegradable garments for the grave

Fashion designer Pia Interlandi has become a self-identified specialist in “dressing the dead.” It was during her grandfather’s burial that she first questioned the reasoning behind clothing the deceased in material designed for longevity, rather than dissolution. After several years of testing the rate of fabric and fiber deterioration for her PhD dissertation, “(A)Dressing Death: Fashioning Garments for the Grave,” Interlandi introduced a fashion line made exclusively from biodegradable cotton, hemp, and linen, designed to undergo stages of “transformation,” or disintegration, in which the body is gradually absorbed into the earth it’s buried in. Although she works mostly with the family members of the deceased, she recently took on her first living client, which is documented in ABC Australia’s Anatomy TV series.