A few years ago Pia Interlandi dressed and buried 21 pigs in order to learn more about how garments decompose in the grave.
She now has her own line of death-wear and works as a funeral celebrant at Clandon Wood Surrey Hills Natural Burial Reserve, outside of London. She dreams of opening a natural burial ground bed & breakfast in the Australian rainforest. In the first part of Digital Dying’s interview with Pia she discusses dissecting cow brains for the sake of art, why in the zombie apocalypse women will be wearing heels and tights but no tops and the importance of dressing your dead relatives.
How did you develop an interest in dressing dead bodies?
My mom was an occupational therapist and I was always interested in assisting people who had experienced trauma. I worked at an amputation ward and burns unit. There were people who had burns but also broken arms and limbs. There were issues like, how do you mend a broken bone when you can’t plaster it? They were using interesting textiles, one was plastic that you put into warm water and it became really soft and molded around the body. I thought that was amazing. I made my formal top out of that material. It was black and sort of like armor. I strapped the back up with red elastic and was dancing around in that thing. I can’t believe I wore that now that I think about it.
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One early project involved dissecting organs you obtained from your local butcher?
I had become interested in the search for the soul and dissected all these organs from the butcher shop and took photos. With digital manipulation I layered hearts and brains and livers, getting these big round organic shapes. I wanted to freeze those moments and also show that these organs were in transition. I made a collection with garments that were black but could be peeled back, the lining of the clothes represented the soul and was all colorful. The key theory with fashion is that the clothing you present yourself to the world with is a skin. Clothing is part of your body, you sweat into it, it keeps you warm, it is part of your individuality. You don’t go out naked, you choose the clothing you wear, even if it’s a subconscious decision.
When was the first time you saw a dead body?
When my mum’s dad died. I had watched a lot of Six Feet Under and read Mary Roach’s book Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers a couple times. I felt like I was prepared to see him. I went in and my overwhelming reaction was, he’s dead dead dead, he’s a corpse, he’s dead! My brain went into this loop, it wasn’t scary for me but I was just completely aware his body was absent of soul or energy or chi. It was an absent vessel. I had been playing with that idea, and to have it confirmed and concrete was pretty affirming of life.
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When was the first time you dressed a dead body?
My other grandfather died and the opportunity rose for me to dress him, that experience changed everything. He was always this strong traditional man’s man, you know, an Italian bloke. I walked into this big open chapel area and he was on a stainless steel bed with a white sheet over him. It was a bit staged, but at that point I was very thankful for that because they had also done things like put his undies and socks on. You put clothes on the dead upside down, to get them over the head, it’s an interesting method of dressing. My grandma had chosen a good suit. I began to focus on things like shoes, why are we putting him in shoes? He isn’t going to be walking. And they were leather, which is basically a synthetic material by the time it goes through the process of tanning. I knew it was going to take 1000 years for these shoes to decompose. Jackets are designed for keeping you warm but he didn’t need to be kept warm anymore. And his shirt was probably a polyester cotton blend. Polyester cotton is something we use for durability, we wear it lots and lots of times but does that really apply in something like death?
Have you dressed the bodies of any other relatives?
I also dressed my grandfather’s sister. She went out in her Sunday’s best. Her children brought in her nylon tights and I thought, man, this is absurd. When we put the tights on her someone started laughing, because trying to put stockings on someone who is dead is kind of difficult. Once that ice had been broken we had this amazing experience where the stories of their mum started coming out. Her daughters walked out of that feeling sad but incredibly glad that they had done it. That actually meant more to them than the whole funeral. I realized there was power in this ritual. That dressing the dead can bring about so much relief and assistance.
Why is dressing the dead so important for the living?
We have become so detached from death. You might see someone in a nursing home and the next minute they’re in their coffin, you don’t get to see someone in that shell to know that they’re not in there anymore. No wonder we have so much fear about being buried alive, because we don’t get to see just how dead someone who is dead is. They are not sleeping they are dead, unless you see that you don’t have any idea what that means. People often think that after someone dies they don’t want to see the body again, but this is what happens to all of us. The body doesn’t suddenly erupt into a zombie. My grandfather wasn’t in the body but that doesn’t mean I didn’t care about his body. The body is still this physical entity in which you engage the person. Once you get over the initial shock of seeing someone you love dead you become more comfortable and focus on the methodical act of dressing them. The thing with dressing is you get to touch the body, so you are immediately put into a situation that is much more intimate.
How did dressing your grandparent’s bodies affect your research?
I was looking at forensics and how fibers decompose. One thing I found was World War I soldiers, up until 20 years ago were being discovered and all they were finding were leather boots and a skeleton foot inside. The boots were in such pristine condition that they were able to find out what army the man had been in, what unit, who made the boots. Another thing I found out about is nylon tights. Because nylon is actually a really strong fiber, it has lots of elasticity. If clothing that is on a body has a nylon band, then as soon as you start getting bacterial decomposition in the gut there is bloating and the nylon band prevents the bacteria from getting below the waistband. What ends up happening is the top half of you decomposes normally, but the lower half mummifies. So when the zombie apocalypse comes you’ll have all these ladies walking around in heels and tights on actual legs but the top of them will be skeletonized. I began to realize that what you wear can affect how you decompose.
Click here for the rest of the interview, with details on Pia’s Pig Project and her bed & breakfast natural burial dream!