This fashion designer makes clothes for dead bodies

As a 17-year-old fashion design student, Pia Interlandi had no idea she'd one day be making garments for the grave.

From silk shrouds to delicate cotton coverings, her business — as a fashion designer and certified funeral celebrant — is to create outfits that mark and manifest the body's transition from living to dead.

Working with clients, who are either terminally ill or very forward-looking, she tailors funeral garments and rituals to suit individual needs.

"It's certainly not the career path I imagined I was going to be getting into," says Dr Interlandi, who completed her PhD project, [A]Dressing Death: Fashioning Garments for the Grave, at Melbourne's RMIT.

"But I was always interested in ephemerality and transience, and by extension mortality, in my design works."

Despite this early interest, it was a death in the family that led Dr Interlandi to reimagine the fashion of funerals.

"The reality of what we are when we die, or what we dress our dead in, became something I explored because of my grandfather," she says.

"I dressed him for his funeral and was amazingly affected in a positive away through this final act of caring for him, and doing that through dressing."

From the home to the morgue

According to Dr Interlandi, dressing the deceased was a common practice for families up until the mid-1800s.

"What used to happen was that you would die at home and your family would wash and dress you, and a local carpenter would make the coffin," she says.

"It's a great piece of Australian and British history that for a long time you had to be shrouded in wool — it was one of the contributions made to the wool industry."

This all changed, she says, with the American Civil War.

Embalming became a favoured practice and, as this required certain skills. People were no longer dressed by their family members after they died.

This professionalisation of the funeral service also saw the shroud — a burial garment used amongst Orthodox Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths — replaced by more formal attire.

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust

But trends in the funeral industry are beginning to shift as new and reconceived rituals, designed to be more culturally and environmentally sustainable, come into public awareness.

"We're hearing these new words starting to emerge from the field; one is aquamation, a cremation done with water," explains Dr Interlandi.

"Or you've got cryomation, where the body is actually submerged in liquid nitrogen and crushed afterwards."

As Dr Interlandi points out, these processes overlook the fact that the body, as an organism, is designed to decompose naturally. It's the clothing we dress our dead in that's not.

"You can technically put a lot of things into a cremation," she says. "It's very hot, about 900 degrees Celsius, so everything will burn."

"But when you are burning plastics, polyesters, nylons or acrylic fibres, all of those are contributing to a bit of pollution."

In contrast, fabrics made from natural fibres, such as cotton, linen, wool or silk, break down in a similar process that of the human body.

Dr Interlandi says for her own funeral, she'd like to be buried straight into the earth, sheathed in a shroud.

"I will have a tree planted on top of me a few years later, or I think I might like to be basil … or a tomato plant would be great," she says, laughing.

"You can't tell that I've got Italian heritage at all from that!"