Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Dressing the Dead: An interview with Designer Pia Interlandi

Pia Interlandi is a fashion designer, artist, funeral celebrant and teacher based in Melbourne, Australia.  Her work, often incorporating ideas of death, ritual and transformation, is varied, thoughtful and benefited by a great depth of research and experience. I am very pleased to be able to share Ms. Interlandi’s work and a conversation with her on The Daily Undertaker:

Patrick McNally: Clothing is very important to our sense of self.  We express our membership in certain social and religious groups as well as our own personal tastes and unique qualities through our clothing.  What does the choice of clothing made specifically for burial say about the person who chooses to wear it?

Pia Interlandi: There are (almost) no human cultures who do not engage with some sort of dressing, it is in fact one of the key determining factors in identifying humans in the history of evolution. In many ways our clothing is a second skin in which we present ourselves to the world.
This is no difference for the dead. To leave one naked for burial (which is something environmentalists have enquired about), is often seen as a sign of neglect or disrespect. Whilst the dead don’t have the same requirements of clothing that the living do; warmth, protection, comfort, it is the living who require the dressing of the dead.
A person who chooses a garment created specifically for internment is in fact acknowledging the end of life as an event, a moment as important and as sacred as birth. They also carry an awareness that this will be the last garment ever worn, and will in fact carry their body through its physical afterlife, symbolically and literally merging with their body. As my garments are designed to break down and encourage decomposition (rather than preservation), the message that people who choose to wear them is one of surrendering or the giving back of their body to the environment, an acceptance and embrace of biological inevitability.  

Designer Pia Interlandi

PM: Clothing that is designed to transform in a specific way when buried with the dead seems to have a sense of the secret about it.  Those who view and those who wear it will never see the transformation take place.  How do you as a designer communicate the value of this kind of garment?
PI: When designing I have undergone rigorous testing to determine the rate of fabric and fibre deterioration. Whilst these results are scientific they have meant that I can design my garments with intentional stages of transformation. I believe that these transformations, whilst indeed unseen, and therefore secret, are reassuring to the living. Knowing that there is something that will gradually unwrap the body, and reuniting it with the earth, with almost a sense of poetry, takes some of the fear out of burial. 

PM: Most clothing used for burial is a representation of who we are in life.  I have buried people in their bib overalls, in uniforms, in formal clothing, and have buried some with many different outfits.  Ritual clothing is something different.  The adherents of some traditions like Judaism and Later Day Saints, are dressed in special burial garments as a preparation to being presented to the divine.  In a way, I see your clothing doing the same thing, only the divine in this case is the earth.  What ritual meanings do you hope your clothing will have the potential of conveying?   
PI: I believe that my garments offer an option that both is representative of a person’s individuality in life and also symbolize their presentation to the physical afterlife, by which, you’re right, I mean the earth.  The ritual I hope to convey is one of establishing a reciprocal relationship with the environment, and the gradual absorption of the body into the landscape. 

PM: Your Body Sculpture work creates wonderful tactile and visual representations of our bodies transforming into earth.  What do you hope that viewers will take away from pondering this process and eventuality?
PI: Most people think that I have digitally altered the images, superimposing the roots, when they realise that all I have done is grown the pieces and with relatively unsophisticated methods photographed them, they experience an ‘ah’ factor.  I hope that viewers will then realise and see the beauty and magnificence in the natural process of the body becoming the landscape. That in many ways we are all linked to the planet we walk on and breathe in.

PM: Your work as a celebrant started with dressing one of your own loved ones after death.  Certainly participation in the physical acts of preparing a loved one for the grave is a wonderful opportunity for ritual and for understanding our own relationship with life, death and our loved one on a much deeper level.  Do you encourage the families that you work with to also engage in this kind of activity?
PI: Absolutely. The dressing of a deceased loved one in an immensely powerful process, and whilst it may not be for everyone, I gently encourage families to participate.
 The first time I encountered the body of someone I knew, I was shocked at how still and cold he was. It was so clear to me in that instant that whatever it was that made him alive, be it a soul, a sprit, chi, electricity between the neurons, had gone elsewhere. I found the experience positively enlightening and one that deeply assisted with my own grieving process. His body was not scary; it was just the physical shell that he left behind.
 With the dressings I have had the privilege of participating in, I have found that it is important for me to be as honest and relaxed as possible, explaining rigor and livor mortis as natural processes, and being at ease with maneuvering a person into their clothes. When families see that the body is not an object of fear or anxiety, they relax and grieve, and sit, and just be, with the person who has died.  The dressing encourages touch and tenderness. One of the most beautiful moments I’ve experience in dressing occurred when the daughters of the elderly lady we were clothing all started giggling when we were shuffling her into her tights, an item of clothing their mother had not worn in years. By the time we got to choosing her lipstick they were smiling through their tears, and reminiscing about all the funny things their mother used to do. The following rosary was a much more somber event, but through the dressing they were allowed to experience a wide spectrum of emotion.
I do warn families that the dead will ‘pass wind’ on occasion, but I’m yet to actually have this happen in a dressing.  

PM: Your dissolving clothing project seems to be a precursor to the burial garments, but it is also such a captivating idea in itself.  Clothing that is designed to dissolve is also like a secret; invisible ink for example.  We are left to wonder what was once there after the clothing has dissolved.  We are also drawn to ponder the importance of the process of dissolving instead of just interacting with clothing in its new and seemingly permanent state.  There are many analogies that can be drawn between our fleeting lives and the disappearing tissues of dissolving clothing.  Most prominent for me is the thought that the breakdown of my body from its beginning to it’s indistinguishable state in the earth can be seen as a beautiful process, not unlike cherry blossoms falling.  Can you tell us about your intentions and experiences with this work?
PI: At the time I began using dissolvable fibres within garments I was exploring concepts of fragility. Working with a cloth that would begin dissolving if your hands were too sweaty when you were sewing it, or, as I only experience once, would deteriorate if you sneezed on it, meant that as a maker I had to reassess my approach to the material.  On the body it drew awareness to the mortality of the garment, which in turn made the wearer aware of their own, human, mortality and fragility.
The dissolvable garments now work as a sped up version of what happens to the garment and body when buried. However, in a much more aesthetically acceptable way, which allows me to use the images as a way to communicate decomposition, without the disgust it usually conjures up.

PM: The research you have engaged in, studying the transformation of different kinds of clothing through burying pigs in your garments just floors me.  I have to mention here that ethical considerations were carefully addressed and approved in this work.  You have done the research on this material and I admire your dedication and passion in pursuing this special knowledge.  Can you share some of your motivations in engaging in this lengthy and controversial work, and tell us what you learned, and how you plan to make use of this knowledge in your future work?

PI: In 2009 RMIT supported me do a residency at SymbioticA, an artistic laboratory dedicated to the research, learning, critique and hands-on engagement with the life sciences, with the intent to study clothing and biological tissue decomposition and interaction. I was introduced to forensic entomologist Prof. Ian Dadour and over a few months we designed a project that would investigate at the rate of textile decomposition in a natural earth burial scenario.  I knew prior to starting the project that forensic research conducted in Australia involved the use of pig carcasses. Donated human bodies go to medical studies and not forensics, so pigs, with their similar size and organ orientation are the next best ‘alternative’. When Ian told me the number of pigs required to get statistically significant and therefore scientifically approved results, I almost withdrew from the project.

I had initially thought that we would use 3 pigs, and finding out the experimental design would include 7 digs, each recovering 3 pigs, totaling in 21. I felt overwhelmed, and after a few months of discussion with peers, I eventually negotiated with Ian that we would use pigs from the human food chain, and that they would be the pigs deemed undesirable and likely to end up in dog food. As such I would be acknowledging the lives of the pigs in a way that would not occur otherwise.  To Ian’s horror, I was going to visit the pigs before their death date, to give each a name, and to thoroughly wash and anoint each with rosemary oil for remembrance, prior to the dressing and burial. I wouldn’t refer to them as ‘tissue’ or ‘carcasses’, and so each received the name of an influential person in my research.  To distance myself from their deaths was counter intuitive, I wanted to be as engaged and present in the process as possible. 

Fabric recovered after burial 

The entire project, which stretched over the period of a year, has been thoroughly documented by film makers Kathy High and Cynthia White, in a film titled ‘Death Down Under’, currently in its final stages of editing. The documentary is one way in which the research will be disseminated; exhibition and academic publications some of the others.
PM: I look forward to seeing the documentary.  Thank you so much for sharing your work and your thoughts with us!  For more of Ms. Interlandi’s work, visit her website,

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