This study found three sustainable burial clothing projects in current or recent development. Each designer’s work is discussed in turn, followed by a discussion of findings and conclusions in how this multi-case study provides directions for future scholarship on the topic of sustainability practices in selection of clothing and textiles for funeral practices. Using information gleaned from the research literature in the forensics, fiber and textile science, and archeology fields, future recommendations are made for clothing and textiles for green burial.
Case 1: Mark Mitchell’s burial clothing with natural fibers
In 2013, artist and former theatrical costumer Mark Mitchell of Seattle, Washington exhibited a collection of nine ensembles titled “Mark Mitchell: Burial.” The collection, now referred to as Burial I, was inspired by Mitchell’s background in costume design, and his experience living through the height of the AIDS epidemic in Seattle. Before designing Burial I, Mitchell’s only prior burial design was a fabric and textile funeral urn he created for a 2008 exhibition curated by Greg Lundgren of Lundgren Monuments in Seattle (personal communication, November 13, 2015). Luxury fabrics and finishing techniques were among the foci of Mark Mitchell’s 2013 collection of burial clothing, “…highly-detailed clothing from silk and other 100% natural materials that is suitable for burial, cremation, and burial-at-sea…” (Mark Mitchell Burial, “About,” n.d.).
In the film “Mark Mitchell: Burial” (Stone-Francois 2013), Mitchell described his transition from theatrical costume designer to tattoo artist at the age of 30. During this period of his life, Mitchell described himself as having “a lot of social problems,” including drinking and using drugs to excess, until he came to realize he might survive the epidemic, unlike many others he had known:
And then I had to go oh, whoa, wait a minute, you know. If I’m going to live, I have to live this life completely differently. I can’t live in this dark place and live for a long time. Cause it’s not fair to the people that did die. They didn’t get a chance to have a good life, you know. I need to have a good life. (Stone-Francois 2013)
Mitchell then devoted himself to a life of purpose, while planning for the future, and making the best of his life. His work with burial clothing allowed him to deal with the trauma of his survivor guilt relating to the epidemic and “find a way forward.”
The opening reception for Mitchell’s 2013 exhibition at the Frye Art Museum in Seattle, Washington during September 21 through October 20 featured nine live models dressed in the Mark Mitchell Burial collection, lying on large mirrors on the floor of the gallery, eyes closed as if dead. The burial clothing worn by each model was inspired by the individual and created especially for him or her, making an idealized or iconic representation of the model (personal communication, November 13, 2015).
Mitchell’s burial clothing uses predominantly undyed and unbleached natural fibers and fabrics of mostly silk and wool. Overall, his aesthetic for the collection is theatrical with elements of glamour reminiscent of old Hollywood and nineteenth century Parisian couture. As Mitchell himself explains, “My choice of techniques for work like Burial [I] is limited to late 19th and early twentieth century dressmaking techniques. I use slow, fine-handsewing techniques, the best natural materials, and don’t take any shortcuts” (personal communication, August 1, 2015). Pieces in the Burial I collection featured classic details such as rows of fabric covered bridal-style buttons, hand-embroidered tattoo-inspired motifs, and hand-knitting.
The first exhibition was well received and Mitchell began a second collection, Burial II, which was to be “hand sewn, without sewing machines” (personal communication, August 1, 2015). However, diverging from the first Burial collection, Burial II was not planned as a collection of burial clothing. Mitchell has stated that he did not plan to make any more burial clothing, except by commission, adding, “My artwork has taken another turn, and it’s unlikely that I will revisit burial clothing as a subject for some time. Burial II, my new work is more object-based than garment-based” (personal communication, August 1, 2015).
Mitchell’s use of luxury fabrics and finishing techniques, and unbleached, undyed natural fibers in Burial I to create one-of-a-kind looks for his model/muses resulted in burial clothing that both honors the deceased and the environment. Of McDonough and Braungart’s (2002) five steps to eco-effectiveness, two steps were well addressed in Mitchell’s designs: Step 1 (Get “free of” known culprits) in that known culprits, synthetic fibers in this case, were not used, and Step 2 (Follow informed personal preferences) in that Mitchell’s materials were chosen from the best natural fabrics available and with a particular aesthetic sense. As McDonough and Braungart wrote in their description of Step 2, “It would not do to select unattractive things just because they had more environmental authority” (p.169).
Case 2: Jae Rhim “JR” Lee’s burial suits with mushrooms
Artist and scholar, Jae Rhim “JR” Lee is the creator of the Infinity Burial Project, burial garments and shrouds for people and pets with an added fungal culture to aid decomposition. After founding and directing the MIT FEMA Trailer Project in 2008, which “examined the environmental, social and political history of FEMA Trailers deployed in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita,” Lee discovered that hurricane victims rehoused in FEMA trailers were becoming ill from the trailers’ formaldehyde off-gassing (ACT at MIT, “Jae Rhim Lee,” n.d.; Creative Capital 2015). This new awareness of the toxicity of formaldehyde inspired Lee to investigate an alternative to the American funeral industry’s formaldehyde embalming process (Creative Capital 2015).
Lee created her burial suit and its accompanying fungal strain for the purpose of removing toxins from the decaying body, preventing them from causing environmental harm as the body decays underground. Lee’s selective breeding of a fungal strain that could consume dead human tissue (bred on dead skin cells and fingernail clippings) was created for the purpose of removing and remediating toxins that exist in the human body, preventing them from entering the ecosystem during decomposition in a process called mycoremediation (Kulshreshtha et al. 2014). By feeding skin cells and hair to mushrooms, Lee cultivated a fungal strain intended to both produce edible mushrooms and remediate environmental toxins in the decomposing body (Creative Capital 2015).
In 2015, Lee joined with Michael Ma, a former senior executive for Bank of America, to found Coeio, a self-described “green funeral start-up.” As of July 2016, Coeio now sells the Infinity Burial Suit, Infinity Burial Shroud, and the Infinity Casket Liner on its website (Coeio.com). The suit is available in organic unbleached or black cotton and comes in three sizes (small, medium, and large). The shroud is made of unbleached cotton and comes in two sizes: size 1 for those weighing less than 185 lb and under 6 feet in height and size 2 for those individuals who are over 185 lb and taller than 6 feet. The shroud and casket are made in New York and infused with mushroom spores (Coeio, “Coeio’s infinity burial suit,” n.d.). Coeio’s product offerings for pets now include The Forever Spot pet shroud and pet bed with drawstring cover, “burial products that benefit the earth and are comforting to pet owners” (The Forever Spot, n.d., para.1). Like the Coeio products for humans, the pet products are made of organic cotton, infused with mushroom spores, and are now co-designed by fashion designer Daniel Silverstein (Coeio, “Coeio’s infinity burial suit,” n.d.; The Forever Spot, n.d.).
One of Lee’s initial projects was the “Decompiculture Kit,” a mushroom growing kit that allowed an individual user to selectively breed a strain of mushrooms to consume the user’s hair, nail clippings, and dead skin cells. Spores from these mushrooms were then intended to be incorporated into the lining of the Infinity Burial Suit (Creative Capital 2015). Lee’s goal in developing unique strains of fungi was twofold and took the concept of green burial two steps further than Mitchell and Interlandi: (1) for each user to have a strain of fungi best suited to his or her biological makeup for maximum efficiency in decomposition and (2) to have the mushrooms remove toxins stored in the body and prevent them from harming the environment after burial (Infinity Burial Project, n.d.). Currently, the suits, shrouds, and casket liners offered by Coeio contain mushroom mycelium, instead of spores, to make the products more shelf-stable, and are from multiple strains of mushroom that are found “all over the world” (Coeio, “Frequently Asked Questions,” n.d., para. 25).
The original prototype of the Infinity Burial Suit covered the body from head to toe, like the current design, and was not only embroidered with yarn containing mushroom spores, but was also intended to be used in tandem with an alternative to embalming and a unique body cosmetic, body makeup described as “an Alternative Embalming Fluid, a liquid spore slurry, and Decompiculture Makeup, a two-part makeup consisting of a mixture of dry mineral makeup and dried mushroom spores and a separate liquid culture medium” (Infinity Burial Project, “Mushroom Death Suit,” n.d., para. 1).
Like Mitchell’s Burial I, Lee’s designs and Coeio’s product offerings incorporate the first two of the five steps to eco-effectiveness. Lee’s work began as an alternative to formaldehyde embalming and Coeio avoids use of synthetic fibers and fabrics (Step 1: get “free of” known culprits). The mushroom death suit’s (now the Infinity Burial Suits, Shrouds, and coffin liners) creation was informed by the properties of mushrooms for remediation of toxins in soil (Step 2: follow informed personal preferences).
Case 3: Pia Interlandi’s burial clothing for the grave
The third green burial apparel designer examined by this study is Australian artist and scholar Pia Interlandi. A former fashion design student, Interlandi combined work in apparel design, fiber science, and forensic science for her doctoral dissertation research at RMIT University, graduating in 2013 and now working as a freelance funeral celebrant and designer of her green burial garments known as Garments for the Grave (Interlandi 2012). Interlandi was first inspired to think deeply about clothing for the dead after taking part in dressing her grandfather for his funeral.
Interlandi’s research and design has had three main branches: experimental designs with water-soluble textiles; the Body Moulds series of sculptures; and The Pig Project, a forensic burial and exhumation project. Interlandi’s work with each of these has culminated in her larger project, garments for the Grave burial clothing, currently in development. After dressing her grandfather’s body in a traditional tailored men’s suit for burial, Interlandi decided to create burial clothing that was designed for maximum ease in dressing and also quick to decompose with the body (Interlandi 2012; O’Connor 2013). The experience of dressing her grandfather’s body in his best suit, a suit made for a flexible, living body to put on and wear with relative ease, left a strong impression on Interlandi. As Interlandi has pointed out, fashion design is all about clothing living bodies:
[W]ithin the fashion field, designers largely cater to living bodies; bodies with lived experience, dynamic movement, and sensory perception. This, of course, differs significantly from the realities of the dead body. (Interlandi 2012, p. 59)
The struggle to dress her grandfather for burial led Interlandi to design burial clothing that allows the living to dress their dead with ease and dignity, incorporating design elements that recognize these garments are to be worn by a body that may be inflexible and is being dressed for the final time.
Interlandi’s undergraduate research included work with water-soluble textiles and her doctoral research expanded this work to include a project with body-shaped molds and a larger project with a forensics team to clothe, bury, and exhume pigs (Interlandi 2012). In working with water-soluble textiles, Interlandi naturally found the effect of moisture during the construction process to be a special challenge. For example, she had to mind the sweat on her hands while sewing, make certain not to iron with steam, and to even avoid accidentally sneezing while working, as any amount of moisture would cause the fabric to dissolve (RMIT Architecture and Design 2013 ). Interlandi’s Body Moulds project began with grass seeds and soil placed in body-shaped molds. Interlandi found that by placing the molds face down, a root pattern emerged on the front of the body, where the water had pooled due to gravity. This root pattern inspired an embroidery motif that she later used in The Pig Project and for Garments for the Grave, her line of burial clothing.
In The Pig Project, Interlandi worked with forensics entomologist Ian Dadour, in a residency with SymbioticA, The Centre for Excellence in Biological Arts, within the School of Anatomy and Human Biology at the University of Western Australia, Perth. Interlandi dressed 21 slaughtered pigs in burial garments of her own design, and buried and later exhumed them. In his lab, the pigs were exhumed at 50-day intervals over the course of a year to examine decay of different fiber types (e.g., cellulose, protein, synthetic). Fabrics and fibers used included hemp, hemp/silk blend, polyester embroidery, nut shell, and casein. Interlandi found that hemp disintegrated in 100–200 days, silk in 200–350 days, while polyester remained unchanged (RMIT Architecture and Design 2013).
Interlandi’s culminating work is her collection titled Garments for the Grave. The Garments for the Grave are designed for ease of dressing and have been described as “…shrouds that recall cocoons and kimonos” (O’Connor 2013, para. 4). Rather than clothing designed for a living body that can move on its own, the Garments for the Grave function more as envelopes or wrappings for the body. The garments are designed with two primary functions, aside from covering the deceased: ease of dressing by family and/or funeral professionals; and for dressing to be done as a ceremonial act, a part of saying goodbye to the loved one and facing death. The ceremonial process of dressing the body in Interlandi’s garments is intended to be a slow process with many steps, one which “makes it somewhat easier to surrender it [the body] to nature” (RMIT Architecture and Design 2013). The body is laid on the garments, which are then folded and wrapped around the body, tied on with ribbons, drawstrings, and cords.
Interlandi’s burial clothing was usually made from unbleached and undyed fabrics, but she would hand dye fabrics if desired (Marsden 2013). In August 2016, the Garments for the Grave online store (garmentsforthegrave.com.au) was not yet open, but Interlandi’s website advertised burial clothing by special commission (piainterlandi.com). Applying the five steps to eco-effectiveness to her work, steps 1 and 2 were mostly fulfilled. In the case of step 1 (get “free of” known culprits), although Interlandi chose predominately natural fabrics and fibers, polyester thread was included in The Pig Project, for experimental purposes, to examine biodegradation. Her experimental work with PVA and use of embroidery designs that mirrored the imagery of the roots of the grass grown in the Body Moulds fulfilled step 2 (follow informed personal preferences) by use of her unique aesthetic.
Fibers and textiles options for green burial practices
This study also explored the ideal choices of fabrics and fiber types for green burial, which would lead to a minimal negative environmental impact using the findings from previous academic studies. Studies such as Jurado et al. (2010) and Pangallo et al. (2013) can be used deductively to identify strains of bacteria and fungi that do not aggressively degrade paper or parchment, ruling out their inclusion in microflora selected for burial textiles. As Pangallo et al. (2013) found, bacteria and fungi worked with “complimentarity” (p. 298) in degrading the wool, silk, and linen of the burial clothing of the seventeenth century Austrian Cardinal. As discussed previously, Coeio’s development of strains of fungus for decomposition are a further example of selection of fungi for decay and bioremediation.
As Solazzo et al. (2013) determined, soil types and microflora have notable impact on the biodegradation of wool fabrics. Additionally, natural dyes were found to have differing effects on biodegradability of the wool samples used in the study. Madder in particular was found to inhibit bacterial growth, suggesting that if natural dyes are to be preferred in burial textiles, madder should not be recommended.
Although Mitchell et al. (2012) found that polyester-cotton (65/35%) shirting fabrics degraded more quickly than 100% cotton shirting fabrics, this study does not conclude that polyester-cotton is the better choice, from a sustainability perspective, due to the unknown, but presumed negative effects of degraded polyester fibers in the natural environment. The findings of Mitchell et al. (2012) further support this study’s recommendations that the soil types of natural burial grounds should be analyzed including pH level. As they found, clay soil was more degradative than sand. This information can be used to guide selection of future locations for natural burial grounds. They also found that the more times fabric had been laundered, the weaker it was after burial.
According to Mitchell et al.’s (2012) findings, this study recommends the use of clothing and textiles that are well-worn and not purchased new for burial, or if purchased specially for burial, clothing and textiles that have been laundered many times before burial. This study further suggests the use of the deceased’s own clothing, perhaps clothing favoured by the deceased in life, rather than a treasured but worn-only-once wedding dress or suit made with synthetic fibers, and the use of vintage clothing and textiles such as handmade quilts. Incorporating the findings of Solazzo et al. this study recommends the analysis of soil types and microflora of natural burial grounds, which needs to be used to guide selection of burial textiles, tailored for the local makeup of the soil and its microbial flora.
Davidson and Mainfort’s (2008) findings illustrate what remains of the nineteenth century clothing and accessories after 100-plus years of burial. It can be extrapolated that small metal components can be expected to remain long after the common types of fibers available (e.g., cotton, linen, wool, silk) in the nineteenth century have decayed. This finding leads to preliminary recommendations for green burial practices via the use of clothing and textiles made from natural fibers (e.g., cotton, linen, wool, silk) with a minimum of non-textile fastenings and other components. As Bellacouche suggests, a natural burial that uses wool felt made from the wool of local sheep reduces the carbon footprint of shrouds and eco-coffins (Bellacouche, n.d.). Therefore, locally sourced materials should be used whenever possible. Further, soil composition and local microflora in natural burial grounds should be examined so that textiles can be chosen to be compatible with desired rates of decay.
Based on the findings of Chen and Cluver (2010), this study suggests that conventional white cotton, while not ideal from a holistic sustainability perspective, can still be considered as a transitional choice if naturally colored cotton is unavailable to the consumer. White cotton’s reduced mildew resistance results in quicker decay and biodegradation than naturally colored cotton. Incorporating the findings of Elanmugilan et al. (2013) and Ruixuan (2010), this study also recommends the use of corn starch in burial textiles to enhance biodegradability, as it would be consumed by microbes present in the soil. Interlandi’s research has included experimental uses of water-soluble textiles. Water-soluble poly-vinyl alcohol (PVA), often used in sewing applications as stabilizer for machine embroidery, could be used to both clothe the body and feed the microflora in the soil. In selecting rate of decay, this study recommends that natural burial grounds decide whether the overall goal is quick decay with minimal impact on the environment (“being less bad”) or C2C full lifecycle (“waste = food”). The addition of microbial flora could be used to enhance decay (e.g., Coeio’s Infinity Burial products), if properly identified as compatible with local flora (identification of which this study also recommends).