Photo courtesy: beautifuldecay.com
Every day, we go on with our lives, with our more or less conscious routines, striving to survive or succeed in this world. And even though each member of the society is well-aware of the fact that death will eventually interfere with his or her life, we all are culturally used to dismiss the thought, doing everything in our capability to avoid thinking about death. You can see this in the mainstream obsession with looking young or the amount of money and time invested in this aim, but also in the tradition of embalming the deceased.
However, beyond cultural perception, it is high time we addressed the issue of dying as cemeteries are becoming too full for new ‘residents’. A consequence of this is the increase in cremations burials which hardly seems like a better alternative since it is extremely polluting – in the UK, 16% of the mercury pollution was caused by cremation, due to our dental fillings.
Indeed, there seems to be a new solution to this problem: green burials. This practice which started in the 1980’s as a backlash against crowded cemeteries in the UK translates into abandoning these unnatural practices such as formaldehyde-based embalming, metal caskets or concrete burial vaults. It’s basically how humans have been burying the dead for hundreds of years: letting the body be food for the soil.
Unfortunately, researches showed that even this way it’s not that environmentally good as one might hope for. Truth is that during our lifetime we store a lot of environmental toxins in our body. The most common might be bisphenol A (BPA) which is a material hardener and a synthetic estrogen that’s found in the lining of canned foods and some types of plastics. It mimics the hormones of our body and can cause neurological and reproductive problems. Studies found that BPA can be found in 93% of people aged 6 or older. But the Centers of Disease Control in the US argues that there are over 200 toxic chemicals in our body; these include tobacco residues, dry cleaning chemicals, pesticides, fungicides, flame-retardants, heavy metals, preservatives, etc. And after we die,all of them end up into the environment, through our bodies.
But artist Jae Rhim Lee came up with a solution, creating the Infinity Burial Project and what she refers to in her Ted talk as the “ninja pijamas”. With the idea in mind that the toxins in our body should not enter the ecosystem through decomposition, she created a mushroom burial suit. The costume is accompanied by a fungal strain that consumes dead human tissue, thus decontaminating the body, in a process of mycoremediation. This practice is already used in cleaning toxic sites and the lead researcher in this field is Paul Stamets. With organic toxins, fungi break down molecular bonds this way neuterlizing toxins or they break toxins down into simpler, less toxic chemicals. With heavy metals for example, the fungi bind the toxins through a process called chelation, making the chemicals harmless.
The mushrooms used are of two types: edible and mycorrhizal. The first ones are decomposers that can break down a variety of food producing enzymes while the latter type creates relationships with plant roots while also delivering nutrients to them.
By feeding dead skin, hair and nail to the mushrooms, Lee cultivated a fungal strain that would be able both to produce edible mushrooms and remediate toxins in our body. (However, the part with production of edible mushrooms is still being experimented with). In 2015, she joined with Michael Ma and founded together Coeio, a “green funeral start-up”. Their Infinity Burial Suit is a handcrafted garment, is biodegradable (of course) and was designed with the help of the zero waste designer Daniel Silverstein. As far as I know, one person already was buried in this suit and here is his story
To conclude, although the fact that even in death we can still pollute the Earth is thoroughly depressing, at least mushrooms combined with science and creativity can offer us eco-friendly funerals.
A report by Ioana Popescu