Morticians Explain How People Choose Their Last Outfits
From a simple shroud to Aretha Franklin's multiple costume changes, here's how to pick the clothes you'd literally be caught dead in.
The body of Aretha Franklin lies in repose.Photo by Paul Sancya-Pool/Getty Images
This article originally appeared on VICE US.
President George H.W. Bush was laid to rest sporting a pair of grey novelty socks featuring jets flying in formation—a nod to his military service and penchant for whimsical socks. As befitted her “Queen of Soul” status, Aretha Franklin lay in repose in four different outfits, including five-inch Louboutin stilettos, during her four-day-long funeral proceedings. When Zsa Zsa Gabor passed away, she asked to have her ashes carried into church in a Louis Vuitton dog carrier.
As the saying goes, “You can’t take it with you.” But as more and more people are discovering, it is possible to go out in style—and on your own terms. Funerary fashion is a natural outgrowth of the death positive movement, which encourages people to think about how they want to their remains to be handled (among other things) far in advance of illness or old age. With more and more consumers choosing to customize their lifestyle—and deathstyle—experiences from cradle to grave, pre-planning the outfit you’d literally be caught dead in is becoming a priority for many.
Hard numbers on dressing the deceased are scant, but the funeral industry’s largest professional organization, the National Funeral Directors Association’s numbers suggest that Americans are less interested in traditional funerary rituals than they ever have been. NFDA’s 2017 survey indicated a shift toward end-of-life services outside the funeral home and reported that the importance of religious components is at an all-time low. It also indicated green funerals are gaining popularity. A shift towards the personal and away from the institutional may explain why a lot of people are ditching the usual staid Sunday best for what they or their loved one may have actually worn in life.
According to Amber Carvaly, a funeral director and co-founder of the pioneering all-female death-positive funeral home Undertaking LA, burying people in whatever they like, no matter how outrageous, is absolutely the right thing to do. “My personal opinion is that this is your last outfit. Why the heck are you worried about what other people think? You're dead. You're finally free from that. So wear what you want,” she told VICE. Carvaly added that she has gotten some unusual theoretical inquiries, like asking if she’d remove limbs or teeth before burial, but says in practice she’s never turned down a family’s request for how they’d like to present their loved one.
In the interest of industry transparency, another death-positive practice, Carvaly admits she does prefer loose clothing. “Anything skintight is really, really hard to put on. Like really hard. Bodies, especially bodies that are unembalmed, can sweat and make it hard to pull tight things up legs and over arms. If the person was elderly, they can have some skin slippage, which basically means that skin can slough off. So out of respect for keeping as much of the body intact, I always say to bring in looser-fitting garments,” she said.
Carvaly said that many people think about looks but not the process: “We have to put this on without standing the body up, so whatever is being brought in has to be rolled and tugged. If you bring clothing into a corporate [funeral] home, I can bet you every dollar in my bank account that they will cut it up the back and slip it over you like a dressing gown. So then I guess you can bring whatever you like in.” In other words, if you insist on wearing that Herve Leger bandage dress one last time, getting it onto your mortal shell could be a little more gruesome and destructive than you’d think. Of course, planning to be buried in a garment negates normal concerns, like resale value or looking good from all angles, and in that respect clients are free to pick the outfit that suits them best.
Social worker and performer Kate Higgins says she chose to legally stipulate her final look from head to toe in her will, from bang length (“half an inch above brows”) to pedicure color (“even though they won't be visible, freshly painted red in CND 17”). When it came to choosing a dress, she picked something that fit her sense of style and conjured warm memories. “I want to be buried in my navy beaded gown (whether it can be zipped up the back or not) that I wore to my best friend’s wedding. This was one of the happiest days of my adult life, and I feel really pretty in that dress,” she stipulated. Higgins said she feels good about her choices and jokes: “I guess even in death I'm a bit controlling.” But she added that she thinks that’s a good thing, considering that she’s seen friends pass suddenly and leave their loved ones with the burden of making arrangements for them. Plus, Higgins says it’s literally her funeral, and she wants to ensure she goes out in her own stylish way. “My family skews preppy and conservative. I do not want them to take one last opportunity to make me look ‘tasteful,’” she said.
Amy Cunningham is a progressive funeral director who owns Fitting Tribute Funeral Services, an eco-friendly, family-run funeral home in New York City. She said that arranging a unique and loving final tribute doesn’t have to involve sequins and designer labels (though it can, if that’s what you want). Her business focuses on facilitating green burials, which have less environmental impact than traditional embalmed interments in a casket, and in this context a plain burial shroud takes on greater significance.
She advocates for families to participate in the simple, ritualistic act of bathing and wrapping the corpse of a loved one—with or without the help of a funeral director. “It’s worth it, to dress the person you care about. I don’t mind if it’s a quilt from home, or anything that has the energy of the family or love around it. It’s a lovely symbol,” Cunningham said.
She recalled one client in particular, whose reclaimed-material shroud was a tribute to her life’s work as an artist. Gertrude Berg, known as Gertie to her friends, was an artist and designer who made garments out of scrap fabric the fashion industry would have otherwise wasted. She asked Cunningham to help put together her final look from her deathbed.
Cunningham recalls visiting Berg in hospice to make arrangements: “I came in, and Gertie was very thin and had a tube going into her nose, but she was conversant and expressive and passionate about the meeting, and sort of uplifted by it, I think. So she began to describe what she wanted. And she wanted just a shroud… she wanted it to be simple and made of linen,” Cunningham said. “As I drove away from the hospice that day, it hit me that a friend from New Hampshire in the home funeral movement… had recently sent me a bunch of linen, vintage tablecloths, and some scrap pieces cut up. So I called Kate Hoover [of Vale Shrouds] and said, ‘Would you make this custom shroud for this beautiful designer, who wants a simple burial in a burial shroud?"
Berg unfortunately never got to approve the final design herself—she slipped into a coma before the piece could be finished. But Cunningham thinks she would have liked it: “It mattered... because Gertie had that meeting with me, we were able to take it a bit further, and even do something that she wouldn’t have anticipated was possible. And the shroud was just very special.”
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