Mika Nobles labels textiles in a home office.
Mika Nobles '19 works with researcher Catherine Craig to label textiles made through Conservation through Poverty Alleviation International (Courtesy photo).

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Halfway around the world in Madagascar, subsistence farmers are harvesting silk from silkworms and weaving them into burial shrouds.

But it's a student from Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, who is helping turn that fabric into a marketable industry.

For the past year, Mika Nobles '19, an English major from Austin, Texas, has been working with Conservation through Poverty Alleviation International (CPALI) and its senior research assistant Catherine Craig to promote and sell the burial shrouds.

The work is important because it gives the farmers an avenue to make a living without destroying the fragile ecosystem of Madagascar.

"CPALI is a nonprofit supporting subsistence farmers in Madagascar who are trying to preserve the remaining diversity of native plants and animals," Nobles said.

Nobles work with CPALI and Craig is funded through the Student Engagement Center's Whitman Internship Grant, self-directed internship program that allows students to craft experiences that mesh with their academic and social interests.

For Nobles, the project blends her love for English and her passion for animal rights.

"A large part of my job is marketing these burial shrouds. I call these funeral homes across America and basically just push our new product. Most of the funeral homes that are interested are in Oregon and Washington," Nobles said. "It's tangential to conservation - and this internship is aligned with my future aspirations. Over the summer, I want to intern for the Oregon Zoo. Both the shrouds and that job are outreach projects that I see as affecting humans and the environment, which ultimately is the end goal for me."

She connected with Craig in April 2018, when the researcher spoke at a Whitman lunch discussion about CPALI's work. Last fall, some of the shroud fabric was on display at the Sheehan Gallery's "Requiem for a Rainforest" exhibit.

Nobles job is to pitch the use of the environmentally friendly shrouds to funeral homes across the United States. The shrouds are biodegradable and made from cocoon silk, as opposed to traditional burial shrouds which are nonorganic and contain embalming chemicals.

"The new shrouds allow the body to compost, so they're far more natural. They also relate directly back to the mission of CPALI, which is to make a better impact on the Earth and help this community in Madagascar," she said.

The profits from the shrouds support the farmers who make them. However, aside from monetary benefits, the shrouds also carry symbolic meaning.

"In a less literal sense, the shrouds symbolize a passing from one life to another because cocoons actually have that happen within them," she said. "It's a gift to the farmers because it gives them a reason not to overharvest resources."

Currently, Nobles is ironing textiles for a show in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where the shrouds will be displayed and marketed to more funeral homes. The green funeral industry is only just taking off, and Nobles is excited to see where it goes.

"I'm really hoping this takes off more. I built a website for new burial shrouds and I've just been helping market them and I'm interested to see where it goes. It seems to be a really interesting industry that people are looking at more."

Nobles is pursuing law in the future, and would like to work in animal rights. She doesn't want to go to law school immediately, but hopes to participate in an exchange program in Japan in which she'll teach English for a year before taking the LSAT.

Learn more about the Whitman Internship Grant and how students can connect their passion with paid experience.