Garments Designed for That Other Big Moment: Your Funeral

Sep 19, 2013

What do you want to be wearing in your final moments? That's the question Seattle artist Mark Mitchell has been wondering about. And he has answered it in the form of burial clothing he has created for a new show at the Frye Museum.

"I’ve not had the luxury of not thinking about death a lot," he says. "I’ve had HIV disease well over 20 years. And I’ve lost many friends." 

In his 51 years on earth, Mitchell has been to a lot of funerals. There was the one for his father.

"It was a very traditional, the way it’s done in today’s funeral industry. And to me, it felt really cold; it didn’t feel warm," he says.

But one funeral stands out in his memory. A friend in his own home, his body "dressed in his finery and laid out basically on his coffee table."

On that day,  people came in and out of the house. Then something extraordinary happened.

"A large butterfly, 5 to 6 inches across came into the house and landed on him and stayed there all day. It was a magical beautiful moment, and that showed me how beautiful it could be—that last moment on Earth, your last presentation to your friends," he says. 

Mitchell designs costumes and custom clothing for performers and creatives. His outfits make giant statements, like a strapless dress made out of red tulle that stretches out 8 feet wide.

Everything he makes is handmade. It's either sewn or knitted, or embroidered, and it takes hundreds of hours to finish. He says he makes clothes that have a purpose: the red gown needed to be danced in; a black outfit he’s sewing for cellist Lori Goldston is for her to perform in; and his burial clothes are meant to make you look grand.

"A more heightened ritual garment (are) comparable to a wedding gown in a way," he says about his clothes.  

There are nine burial garments, all made out of silk or cotton or leather. And everything  is white, from the high-collared dresses to the ruffled jackets to the words embroidered on the inside.

Mitchell made the pieces specifically for nine of his friends. No one raised an eyebrow when he told them what he was doing. The nine people will be the live models in a fashion show that opens the show Friday night.

"I think everyone wants to be preserved in their best,"  says Anna Telcs, a visual artist and clothing designer who is one of Mitchell's models. She thinks he's onto something.

"Your family could also be involved in putting together a beautiful outfit for you. Besides being an art project, it’s actually a legitimate business practice, and I hope he continues doing it," she said.   

If you’re open to the notion, Mitchell will design a custom outfit for you. It will be expensive. His garments all have closures on the back which makes it easier for funeral directors to access and dress your body.

If you’re not yet ready, there’s always the "Mark Mitchell: Burial" show that will get you thinking: What will be your final look?