Afra Banach runs a hand down the sleeve and rubs the soft felt hem between thumb and forefigner. "This cloth is very popular," she says, looking up. "It feels so warm."
The cloth she's talking about will dress a corpse one day. The flowing white shroud is embroidered with a red star on the front which looks much more vivid than the delicate flower leaves sewn onto the shroud next to it. The designer from Dortmund has five models on offer -- to be tried on by people who are still alive. The shrouds can be seen on the Internet: www.leichenhemd.com.
"My customers aren't just ill people," she says, adding that they're not all elderly either. Most people who visit her are aged 50 and over. They select a shroud and put it in their closet so they can feel prepared. Afra Banach often spends a long time speaking to her customers. She doesn't know them and she won't seem them again. Each of them comes to see her just once in their life.
Her collection changes all the time. People can choose to have their favorite flowers embroidered on their shroud. The shroud model known as "the Net" features countless threads that spread all over the cloth. Customers can select the colors of these threads, just as they can choose which verse of a poem they want to have printed on the model known as "the Poem."
Banach doesn't want to get any more extravagant than this. She has no pink shrouds and no shrill accessories on offer. The basic color of the shrouds is a creamy white. "The idea is for people to be reminded of their christening robe," she explains, sitting at the dinner table in her Dortmund apartment, where she manufactures her shrouds. A few years ago, she became the first German to hand in a diploma thesis on shroud design.
Afra Banach has thought a lot about her shrouds -- and she wants people to know. It's important for people to understand that her work is not intended as a provocation, or as an attempt to fill a gap in the market, she says. Banach talks about the tradition of people keeping their future shroud in their closet during their life time. Spouses even gave each other shrouds as wedding gifts in some Jewish communities, she points out. Banach talks about dignity and saying farewell.
"I pass a lot of my own energy on to a shroud when I sew it," she says. She explains that making a shroud isn't regular design work and has nothing to do with mass production either. Banach mentions her own thoughts about death. Sometimes she thinks about the customer who will wear the shroud she is working on. She says she cannot and doesn't want to suppress such thoughts when she's at work.
Afra Banach isn't a melancholy person. She smiles as she tells the story of how funeral parlors first responded to her idea -- "hesitantly," as she says. Which probably means they responded with a great deal of skepticism or even hostility. After all, the funeral parlor business isn't exactly known for being innovative, at least not in Germany. Banach says her friends and acquaintances also "recoiled" when they first heard about her design project. But businesses now organize exhibitions of Banach's shrouds.
It's simple, really. A growing number of graveyards prohibit the burial of corpses dressed in everyday clothes -- for environmental reasons. As odd as it may sound, that's the reason why Banach's shrouds are biodegradable. She also deliberately designs them in such a way as to create a contrast with regular shrouds, which tend to look like conventional ceremonial vesture.
"All the rage"
Banach's work is part of a larger trend towards a more open-minded funeral culture. Other countries have led the way. In Holland, fans of the soccer team Ajax Amsterdam can ask to have their ashes strewn on a field of grass taken from soccer pitches. Recording this ritual on video has become common practice. In Denmark, mourners can paint the urns of their deceased relatives.
New German funeral fairs like "Dernier cri" ("All the rage") may accelerate the development of such trends in Germany. Besides Banach's shrouds, "Dernier cri" also features other, more bizarre items -- such as dual use coffins. Before serving as a final resting place, these coffins can be used as a stylish couch or closet by their owners.
And yet despite such innovative ideas, the culture of undertaking is changing only very gradually. That's why Afra Banach isn't able to make a living off her shrouds. She holds a second job as a graphic designer. But her shrouds are increasingly in demand -- and so their prices are rising too. A tailor-made shroud by Banach costs between €150 ($192) and €300 ($384).
Banach was born in 1969 and says she is really making the shrouds for people her own age. "I'm sure when they die they don't want to have to wear a regular shroud," she points out. She looks at her various models. The "Net" is her favorite, she says. The delicate threads resemble the vein-like structure on the back of a dry leaf.
She's already sewn her own shroud. It's waiting in her closet.