Racked is no longer publishing. Thank you to everyone who read our work over the years. The archives will remain available here; for new stories, head over to Vox.com, where our staff is covering consumer culture for The Goods by Vox. You can also see what we’re up to by signing up here.
Have you ever searched the phrase “bury me in this” on Twitter? It’s fascinating. Most of the entries are selfies taken by teenagers and 20-somethings, none of them anywhere near a natural death, many of them in the kind of sheer, short, skin-baring get-ups that never look better than on a very young person. (See, for instance, the chosen burial garb of 19-year-old YouTuber Acacia Brinley.) In this context, you could read “bury me in this” as more or less equivalent to “I look hot in this.”
But not all of the young people posting selfies under this phrase are wearing conventionally “sexy” outfits; many wear favorite T-shirts, cozy sweaters, or well-coordinated watches and sneakers. They are wearing things that make them feel like themselves. And though these Twitter users are joking, in that they presumably don’t expect to die anytime soon, that association — between the clothes we are buried in and what they say about our personalities in life — reflects a fairly recent shift in cultural values around burial custom and tradition.
Caleb Wilde, a funeral director at Wilde Funeral Home and author of the forthcoming book Confessions of a Funeral Director: How the Business of Death Saved My Life, says there’s been a substantive change in the type of clothing people are buried in, even in the 10 to 15 years since he began his career. “When I first started, everybody was buried in suits and dresses,” says Wilde. Among elderly people dying in the ’90s and early aughts, says Wilde, it was customary to keep a selection of outfits considered one’s “Sunday best,” both for religious services and one’s eventual burial. But this was the World War II generation, which has all but died off, and the generations that follow it are less religious, and perhaps less concerned with appearances — at least in the traditional sense.
To the children of the WWII generation, self-expression is more important than social status or propriety. Says Wilde, “Now that we're starting to see the boomers die, it's individual expression that’s key.” This might mean a beloved sweater, the jersey of a favorite sports team, or even jeans, says Wilde. In other words, people dying today are buried in what you might call grave-casual. There is now, however paradoxically, a desire to be “comfortable,” even in death. Wilde tells me that he often sees clients buried in favorite slippers because the deceased’s children “want Dad to be comfy.” (I’m not crying, you’re crying.) Psychologically, the impulse makes sense — if death is the longest-ever sleep, it’s not crazy to want to wear pajamas. But what do abstract values like “comfort” and “individuality” matter to a corpse?
Not much, says Davide Zori, a Viking archaeologist at Baylor University. In most cultures, burial customs are designed less for the dead than for those who survive them. “Places of burial are remembered, and venerated, and interacted with,” says Zori. [The deceased’s loved ones] “go back and interact with the items and the dress that made that old identity. It's like a repository of your ancestors' history.” And because most people die at least somewhat unexpectedly, and tragic accidents happen, it’s often the case that it is one’s spouse and/or family who select the clothing in which the deceased should be buried. It is then left up to the spouse or family member to represent the deceased on his or her behalf — which means that the values of the living are imposed on the dead. (Many scenes from various TV dramas in which spouses/parents/children argue about what a dead person “would have wanted” come to mind.)
In pre-Christian Viking tradition, for instance, a dead chieftain would be propped up on a chair with a drink to “socialize” with his community, while a group of women would be tasked with sewing him fancy, brand-new burial clothing, Zori tells me. As important as it may have been to a given Viking chieftain to be buried in the sickest of cloaks, it was equally (if not more) important to those who survived him, who hoped to transmit the scope of his power through his attire. Choosing someone else’s burial clothing presents an opportunity for those still living to grieve, to pay homage to the kind of person the deceased was in life, and to honor the communities he or she was a part of.
Though many family members and/or spouses choose burial clothing on behalf of their dead, in most cases, funeral directors are the ones to dress the body in that clothing. This is something Wilde hopes will change. “I think the funeral industry as a whole, in professionalizing death care, has made [dressing the body] seem like it's something super scary, and that professionals need to take care of it. And I think that's one thing we need to give back to families,” he says. Particularly in an increasingly nonreligious culture, Wilde views dressing the body for burial as an opportunity for a meaningful, secular tradition. “Dressing a body is something that's very intimate,” says Wilde. “It's an act of love to dress your dead.” Particularly when the outfit is something that reminds us of our loved one, dressing their body could, says Wilde, be a positive, powerful tool in the grieving process.
There are, of course, scenarios in which the deceased can’t be buried in his or her own clothing — usually because of substantial pre-death weight loss (due to illness or inactivity) or weight gain (typically due to swelling from intravenous fluids). That’s where burial-clothing supplier Ethel Maid comes in. The company was founded in 1931 by a woman named Ethel Coryell, who initially made and sold burial blankets for casket companies. A few years later, Coryell started making burial dresses.
Today, Ethel Maid is the largest supplier of burial clothing in the country, selling directly to 5,000 funeral homes nationwide. They sell dresses, negligees, undergarments, and generically respectable suits — all designed to be worn exactly once, for a very long time. According to the website, the company employs 48 seamstresses. Ethel Maid sells approximately 10,000 burial garments to funeral homes annually, says current owner Richard Gardinier. Ten thousand is a formidable number, though averaged across 5,000 funeral homes, that may amount to just two sold per funeral home per year.
Wilde, whose own funeral home buys burial garments from Ethel Maid, says it’s not often that they buy from the company: “It's probably like once every other month that it'll actually happen. It's pretty rare.” And usually, these last-minute outfits are purchased under circumstances most of us hope to avoid — because nothing else fits, or because our relatives find it too overwhelming to go into our closets to find something for us to wear.
“It's tough to pick,” says Gardinier. “I've done it, and it's a tough thing to do, to go into somebody's closet and pick out what you think they like.” Most people employ some sense of personal taste (however inscrutable) in choosing what they wear, so what do we do when they’re no longer able to voice it? How many times have you sent a link to an item of clothing you’re sure your friend or partner or sister will love, only to have them laugh in your face? We can only ever know each other so well, and in choosing a burial outfit for someone else, there is always the risk that the deceased would’ve hated it. The only good news is that you (probably) won’t have to hear about it.
Perhaps, then, it should be considered lucky rather than morbid to be able to choose one’s burial outfit in advance. “My great-aunt, several years before she was even close to dying, pulled out a box from underneath her bed to show me what clothes she wanted to be buried in — this dress, and the earrings, and the necklace,” says Zori. “She had a really clear idea of how she wanted to be represented in death. She always tried to control things in life, and she clearly didn't want to hand over the decision to us, to her relatives.” Here is one last opportunity to define oneself. And maybe it’s this ethos that those teenage tweeters are getting at — “bury me in this” meaning “this outfit describes me so well that I would spend eternity in it.”
There are very few occasions in a life that require this level of dress-up gravitas, and perhaps only one that is certain: the very last outfit you’ll put on (or, rather, have put on you). “It's pretty mysterious what happens when we die, right? It's one of the two most significant transitions of life. You're born, different things happen to you, and you die,” says Zori. “We've gotten rid of a lot of [rites of passage] in modern secular culture. The burial rite of passage will probably be the last to go. It's sad, it's important, it's a transition we don't understand, so we try to do it right.”
Many of us won’t get that final chance to choose. We will be buried in something picked out for us, or, among those who’ve chosen cremation — a group which stands at approximately 50 percent of all deaths in the U.S., and is expected to continue rising — we’ll be cremated in whatever we happened to be wearing when we died: a hospital gown, maybe, or nursing home loungewear. Unless, that is, the family specifies otherwise: if you let your family know what you want to be cremated in, Wilde says your funeral director will make sure that’s what you’re wearing into the crematorium, so long as it can still be fitted onto your body. (In some cases, says Wilde, you might be cremated naked, but most people don’t die naked, and so aren’t cremated naked.)
Am I saying you should choose a death outfit now, and inform everyone you know and love? Not necessarily. But the teenagers captioning their selfies “bury me in this” may have the right idea: It doesn’t hurt to think about it, sooner rather than later. But your body will probably change a lot between 22 and the age you die, and so will your taste in clothing. There is only so much you can do to get ready for your death. If you’re lucky, choosing your outfit will be one of those things.
When I asked Wilde if he had an idea what he might wear to his funeral, he says he doesn’t know. “I've thought about it, too,” he tells me. “I wear suits all the time, so I'll probably just wear a suit.”
When I asked Gardinier if working in his line of business made him think about what he’d eventually wanted to be buried in, he didn’t waver. “No,” he laughs. “Not at all.” So I told him I hoped it wouldn’t come up for a very long time.