I recently went with friends to an exhibition of photographs with the above title. We were intrigued by the concept of 'clothes for dying', and wanted to find out more. The photographer was Margareta Kern, a young woman from Bosnia-Herzegovina, who now lives and works in London. On a return visit to see her mother, she learns for the first time of the relatively unknown and rather private custom among women of her country, of preparing special clothes in which to be buried. She is so moved and at the same time so curious about practice, that she decides to turn it into a photographic series.
She writes very interestingly, in the exhibition catalogue, of her journeys into remote rural areas to interview and photograph older women, with the clothes in which they wish to be buried which they have either bought or made, and of how she had to create an atmosphere of trust for them to pose with their most intimate possessions, but nevertheless felt like something of an intruder. I think the images are incredible. The different expressions on the women's faces alone are a study: dutiful, resigned, smiling, even resentful. They were mounted on enormous frames, so that one felt as though one was inside the rooms. You can see the rest of the series here.
But my personal slant on this, is to take issue with the author of the Introduction to the Exhibition Catalogue. He writes:
To westerners, the mere idea of an elderly woman creating a suit of clothes - effectively a Sunday best - specifically in which to be buried is almost beyond understanding.
I just do not agree. It has been, if it is not still, a western practice for women to collect a trousseau, or 'bottom drawer' of items in preparation for marriage, and again to collect a layette for a baby. These are happenings of great significance in a woman's life, and death is another of our rites of passage. For me it is a quite logical progression to prepare for death in the same way.
And nowadays it is becoming commonplace for us to determine how we wish our funerals to be conducted, what sort of coffin we want to buried in, even to choose a gown to wear. It is a short step from there to preparing a gown oneself, and setting it aside. It is not unknown to hear of people who have bought their coffins in advance. I am considering saving my family some hassle by making and paying for a funeral plan in advance. This will certainly involve choosing my coffin, and also choosing the plainest shift, shroud or gown that they can offer. I shall probably choose flowers as well.
A coffin being decorated
Some time ago when in Bishop's Castle in Shropshire, I visited the shop of The Purple Funeral Company, providers of traditional and alternative funerals. They also held workshops where one could decorate one's coffin of choice. I am told that they have gone from there, but they now have premises in Kington, Herefordshire, and Gladestry, just over the border in Wales. Their website is worth a visit, if you are interested in an alternative way of going..
A montage of the coffins on offer in the shop