Caught Dead in it

What they're wearing in the afterlife


in Features • Illustrated by Bhavna Ganesan


Of all the doctrines and beliefs I had to learn about in Catholic grade school, there was no mention of the one religious question that haunts me as an adult: If there really is an afterlife, what do the dead wear? Are their outfits something you wouldn’t want to be caught dead in? Or are they simply to die for? And do they have your size? 

People who share my anxiety over this unanswerable question should spare no expense when buying their funeral outfits. Not only will it give your loved ones a grand finale to remember you by, but if — as some have believed throughout the ages — it will be the one outfit you can take with you to the afterlife, you’ll certainly get lots of wear out of it.        

In “What They Were Buried In,” an article by Philippa Snow in the academia-meets-fashion journal Vestoj, recalls several celebrities who really swung for the heavenly gates with their funeral outfits. Perhaps thinking of his funeral as “This Is Really It,” Michael Jackson dropped $35,000 on his burial outfit of “a pearl jacket, black Levis encrusted in black seed beads, an 18-karat gold-plated champion belt adorned with semi-precious stones.” At first, it might seem like Beverly Hills heiress and socialite Sandra Ilene West was just being practical by specifying a comfortable white nightgown for the Big Sleep. But in 1977 her true, gaudy colors came out when, according to her wishes, she was buried at the wheel of her 1964 Ferrari (“with the seat slanted comfortably”), which was inside a crate that was lowered into a 9-by-20-by-9-foot grave at a cemetery in San Antonio. 

Of course, once you die, there’s no way of making sure your choice in funeral attire is honored. Smith cites two of the famous dead who were duped. Zsa Zsa Gabor wanted to be buried in her favorite dress and jewelry, but “she ended up being cremated, and her ashes were carried into her funeral . . . at Beverly Hills’s Church of the Good Shepherd, in a Louis Vuitton bag. “Though he never stated that he wanted to be buried as Count Dracula, Bela Lugosi went to his grave in the costume of his most famous role. Adding insult to injury, he was interred in a prop casket. 

I would hope that when Aretha Franklin, who sang so emphatically for R-E-S-P-E-C-T, died in 2018, her funeral arrangers respected her wishes. They did, but the Queen of Soul didn’t request just one outfit. Instead, she asked for a different one for each of the three days of her viewing, and a fourth for her funeral and burial, leaving it to her family to select the specific garments. Although this idea wasn’t mentioned in any of the press coverage I read, I wonder if Franklin, a religious woman who grew up singing gospel music, had an ulterior motive for choosing those final four outfits: the hope that she could rotate wearing them, so the simple novelty of a change of clothes could lessen the same-old-same-old feeling of eternity. 

Whether we’re talking about final four outfits or one grand finale, I have no interest in lying in an open casket and will do all I can to prevent my family from doing that to me — not even over my dead body. I find the mere thought of a corpse ghoulish, and as for a formal viewing of me, and have always felt uncomfortable with people looking at me. And there’s an advantage of being cremated: with the money my family saves by nixing the coffin, they can each buy themselves some overpriced clothing in my memory. 

Another reason I’m not open to an open casket is that I think clothes need to be animated by a living person to be appreciated. That’s why I like young people’s use of the verb “rock” to applaud how someone is presenting clothing in its best light and projecting a whole aura of coolness around her. “Rock” as a compliment expresses admiration and often a bit of envy and acknowledges that the item suits your personal style and looks better on you than it would on the one commenting on it. A similar compliment is, “You can pull that off, but I don’t think I could.”  

Rock and pull off are active verbs; a corpse can do neither.  

I think Whitman had a similar view in mind when he wrote about “the expression of a well-made man” in “I Sing the Body Electric”

It is in his walk, the carriage of his neck, the flex of his 
waist and knees, dress does not hide him, 
The strong sweet quality he has strikes through the cotton 
and broadcloth . . .

No matter what we wear at our funerals, some religions issue the dead one getup they’ll just have to live with and say to hell with fashion trends that come and go back in this world.            

The New Testament doesn’t cover what they’re wearing in hell or purgatory, but Christians can find out what their heavenly outfits will be by reading St. John’s vision of paradise in Revelation 7:9: “After this I beheld, and, lo, a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues, stood before the throne, and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes.” Fine, but could there be some Christians who don’t mind always wearing the same thing and yet worry because they don’t look good in white?                       

The Quran also restricts its sartorial details to paradise, where the fortunate departed recline on couches in magnificent gardens wearing “green garments of silk and brocade.” That’s bad news for those Muslims who always associated that color with St. Patrick’s Day, and while on earth preferred bold plaids, wide, colorful stripes or even hipster black. Besides, where there are gardens there is also dirt, and silk is a notoriously hard fabric to keep clean.  

Hinduism gives short shrift to attire for an afterlife that is a mere way station between lifetimes. In fact, the Bhagavad Gita compares the Self’s, or soul’s, reincarnations to a quick change of outfits: 

As, after casting away worn-out garments, 
A man later takes new ones, 
So, after casting away worn-out bodies, 
The embodied Self encounters new ones. 

But what about Hindus who are happy with their lot in life and their appearance? When they die, they might rather have their familiar bodies mended by a Divine Tailor than gamble on rebirth in a totally new one. 

The other Eastern religion espousing reincarnation, Buddhism, helpfully offers the dying a thick tome to guide them through the Bardos, or stages of the afterlife: The Tibetan Book of the Dead. I had hoped this comprehensive guide that gives instructions on even obscure topics — like “Visualization, Prostration, Offerings, Refuge, and Prayer to the Peaceful Deities” and “Threefold Offerings of Outer Phenomena, Inner Cloud-mass, and Secret Substances” — would provide a few hints about appropriate bardo garb. But for that, I had to turn to Travels in The Netherworld, by Brian J. Cuevas, which relates some traditional Buddhist narratives of déloks, people whose spirits have visited the bardos and returned to earth. One Karma Wangzin, for instance, born in the mid-17th century in the region of Lhodrak, Tibet, is told by her brother’s spirit that her arrival among the dead was announced by an ascetic “who wore blue layman’s clothing” and “earrings made from paper scrolls.” Another netherworld tourist, Jampa Delek, relates seeing a large number of people from his home region wearing “the distinctive dress of their own lands.”  

In fact, the dead’s wearing much the same clothing in the afterlife as they did in their lives comes up in several religions. This finding may be good news to people who take comfort in familiar things, but disappointing to others who had hoped for new outfits that are literally out of this world and instead find garments they could basically get at the mall. 

I had hoped that the Old Testament, which documents the very origin of clothing in Genesis, would offer examples of how the departed are dressed. But the only specific I found was a passing reference to clothes in 1 Samuel. When Saul became frightened while leading the Israelites against the Philistines, he sought a medium to summon the spirit of the prophet Samuel. When the spirit suddenly appeared, he was “covered with a mantle.” So, we can assume that the dead wear this type of cape in the afterlife, or at least that Samuel kept one on hand and grabbed it before traveling to Earth in case it was cold there. 

Like many persistent spiritual seekers, in my quest for afterlife info, I eventually explored the mystical branch of a religion. Discussing Kabbalah and its central text the Zohar in Jewish Views of the Afterlife, Simcha Paull Raphael describes the clothing of the virtuous spirits in the paradisiacal realm of Gan Eden: “These robes worn by the righteous are celestial garments that reflect the qualities of an individual’s spiritual attainment.” A soul first enters a place called Lower Gan Eden, where Raphael tells us, “Disembodied beings find themselves in a more terrestrial type of garment,” the “constituent elements” of which are formed by “the deeds an individual performed while alive.” Then after additional purification, the soul moves on to Upper Gan Eden, where “other precious garments are provided for it of a more exalted order, made out of the zeal and devotion which characterized his study of the Torah and his prayer.” So, this one example of variety in postmortem dress also has a big downside: even if you die and go to heaven, you can’t get away from the status that clothes so often symbolize.      

My takeaway from this survey of religions is that compared with the varied, artful wardrobe I own now, even in a paradise I would feel like I was slumming it. It’s enough to make one hope there is no afterlife after all.  

However, all my research on clothing and the dead has given me ian dea. Over the years I’ve been fortunate enough (and clothes conscious enough) to receive a number of compliments on my attire. Call it vanity or having a good memory, but I can remember who said these nice things and about what item in particular. So, I could direct my family to upon my death, get in touch with these kind, perceptive people, and invite them to wear the item they liked when they pay their respects to me at a simple memorial. (Sort of a sartorial memorial). 

Then a young man I worked with at my last job, who one day looked at my outfit and said, “Man, I’d like to go through his closet someday and have my pick,” would be able to do just that. My adult daughter has a fine eye for fashion. So, I wasn’t surprised when she saw my big, shawl-like wool scarf, woven with eight, two-foot-long dachshunds sporting multi-colored spots, and let out an appreciative “Hmmm!” When she inherits it, I hope she remembers how the scarf entertained her infant daughter, who lay on the floor as I bent over her and flapped the extended scarf with my arms as though I had two wings.  On two different occasions, one of my brothers-in-law gave his thumbs up to something I was wearing: my salmon T-shirt with a printed turquoise horse, made by an indigenous artist, and my clunky, dark-brown suede boots. Since their colors go well together, he could wear both to my funeral. (But one time another brother-in-law of mine took a look at my prized white, split-toe Nikes, called pie de vaca or “cow’s foot” in Argentina where I found them, protruding beneath the cuffs of my tight jeans, and said, “Whoa, where’d you get those limos?” He’ll be on his own for funeral wear.) 

To be totally forthcoming, I must admit that my scheme to pass on my clothing after I myself pass on is not completely altruistic. For it gives my habitual clothes-buying a new dimension by letting me say that I’m really shopping for posterity. •


Stan Tymorek is a freelance writer specializing in the arts. His writing has appeared in the poetry website Jacket2, New Music USA, New York Public Radio's New Sounds, and Artenol, "a purgative for an ailing art world, a palliative for afflicted aesthetes," founded by the artist Alex Melamid. "Caught Dead In It" is one of a series of essays he is writing about the comedy in clothing throughout history, including the afterlife. He lives in Madison, Wisconsin.