How Artists Are Reimagining the Way We Bury the Dead
Caitlin Doughty is redecorating her mortuary. “Rose lighting is always a nice touch,” the author, mortician, and death-positive activist tells me. “The aesthetic is that you're in a living room but not your grandma’s living room from the 1950s—it’s, like, a cool person’s living room.”
Doughty is well-versed in the aesthetics of death. She began working in crematories at age 22, wrote a best-selling memoir about her mortuary education called Smoke Gets in Your Eyes (2015), and now runs a non-profit funeral home in Los Angeles. Her just-released book From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death, is a necro-travelogue of sorts, chronicling death rituals from rural Colorado to bustling Tokyo. She’s an educator whose popular YouTube series “Ask A Mortician” answers questions from viewers like, “Can the dead donate blood?” or, “Do crows have funerals?” With her trademark mixture of simple explanations deadpan wit, Doughty wants us all to become a little more death-literate.
When Doughty founded the Order of the Good Death, an organization of like-minded, death-positive folks from from morticians to medical historians, she knew immediately that artists and designers should be closely involved. “Nobody’s going to get starry-eyed about things like burial law reform or deregulating the funeral industry,” she notes wryly, “but they are going to be inspired by the idea that they might want to be buried in a mushroom suit.”
Much of our fear arises from the fact that death is mysterious. Although the fear of death is more or less universal, Americans’ fear of dead bodies is uncommonly intense. Even practices that are common in other cultures—such as when a family washes and prepares a loved one’s body for burial—are unfamiliar, even alarming to many Americans, who generally leave these jobs to professionals.
In From Here to Eternity, Doughty explains that traditional burial in the U.S. usually means embalming the body, artificially preserving it with a combination of formaldehyde and other chemicals. This process, which requires training and a license, takes place out of sight; the deceased person’s family is rarely involved. Morticians apply heavy makeup and often make cosmetic adjustments with glue and pins so that the body resembles a living person as closely as possible, further alienating us from the reality of death.
For the American funeral industry a beautiful death means an embalmed and cosmetized body, but for Doughty, this narrow aesthetic ideal contributes to our collective death-phobia. “They’ve gotten locked into one idea of beauty that means chemically treating the body, putting makeup on it, and putting it in a big casket,” she notes. “A lot of people are deeply creeped out by that. They leave the wake feeling like they haven't really addressed their grief.”
But this homogenous approach is beginning to shift, a change spurred on by the art and design contingent of the Order of the Good Death, and an increasing public interest in natural or “green” burials (that’s when the unembalmed body is laid to rest in a biodegradable shroud or wooden casket and interred directly in the ground, not a metal-lined vault). According to a Funeral and Memorial Information Council study, in 2015, 64% of adults over 40 expressed interest in green funeral options, compared with 43% five years before.
Order member and architect Katrina Spade’s Urban Death Project, a nonprofit that researched turning dead bodies into compost, an ambitious endeavor that puts alternatives to conventional burial in the spotlight. The process, which began as Spade’s master’s thesis, is currently being tested and refined by the Seattle-based architect and her team. The underlying process is similar how leaves and other organic materials decompose on the forest floor: nitrogen, carbon, and a bit of moisture break the body down, turning it into rich soil. At the end of the four- to six-week process the family of the deceased will be able to collect the soil and even use it to plant a garden.
As Doughty traveled the world researching From Here to Eternity, she was rarely alone. Tourists are drawn to the same sites, festivals, and even private funerals, sometimes even running up to a casket to snap a picture. Is that lure merely a case of morbid curiosity? Doughty concedes that this could be a factor, but quickly adds, “I think the deeper underlying attraction is wanting to see death as it really is. People don’t want a box of ashes handed back to them, they want to see vultures tearing the flesh from the body.”
Although we’re probably not all jonesing for our own Tibetan sky burial, we do want to understand the reality of death. People also miss the rituals and rites that help us to process our grief. “There’s this unplaceable longing for the death rituals of the past and the connection they used to have with the dead,” Doughty says. “Do I like that tourists are going around interrupting other people’s death rituals? No, it’s awful. But I do have sympathy for that longing.”
Pia Interlandi’s bespoke burial clothing is helping to rebuild those lost connections. The Australian designer’s work allows families to easily perform the meaningful rituals of preparing the dead body for burial, rather than consigning them to a professional.
As a student, the Order of the Good Death member experimented with dissolvable textiles, which gorgeously suggested the body’s own tendency to disintegrate, and eventually disappear, after death. Her explorations of clothing and mortality began as a metaphor. But when her grandfather died, she helped her relatives dress his body in his funeral suit; the experience sent her research in a more practical direction. Interlandi saw how important the ritual was for her family—and also how challenging it is to dress a dead person in clothes designed for the living.
In 2012 she debuted a collection of bespoke clothing designed for cremation or burial. Made from ivory-colored silk, cotton, and hemp, without any metal zippers, plastic buttons, or synthetic fabrics, the garments are completely biodegradable. The overall effect, including delicate silk pockets for the hands and feet, is reminiscent of a beekeeper who has fallen asleep wearing Comme de Garçons.
A less fashion-forward, but still innovative alternative is the Infinity Burial Suit. The suit went viral after the artist and entrepreneur Jae Rhim Lee wore it while she delivered a TED talk about the eco-friendly design. Created by Lee in collaboration with fashion designer Daniel Silverstein, the suit’s current design resembles a matching set of children’s pajamas, and is made from mushrooms and other microorganisms. The mushrooms grow and consume the body as it decomposes, speeding the decomposition process, neutralizing the body’s toxins and leaving nothing but clean soil where plants can grow.
The suit has negligible environmental impact and at $1,500 costs a fraction of a conventional burial, which will typically set you back between $8,000–$10,000 in the U.S. Lee’s company Coeio sells the mushroom suit as well as a mushroom burial shroud. You can even buy a mushroom suit for your dog.
There’s a growing interest in the alternative approaches advanced by these artists and designers. Design innovations in the field are spotlighted on Facebook and eagerly covered in Dwell or on Buzzfeed. Artists and designers can eventually the wider culture by making death a normal part of life, not a terrifying specter.
For Doughty, even just talking about death is a step forward, and artists are often the first ones to take it. “They inspire conversation—and really shareable pieces for the internet,” she explains. “Artists inspire people’s sense of wonder around death and what is possible.”