Mushrooms Offer the Prospect of a Greener Afterlife
The fleeting nature of life and the prospect of death can be difficult subjects to broach. Many societies harbor taboos on talking or even thinking about the subject of mortality. And while Buddhism teaches us to recognize and accept the impermanence of all phenomena, including the inevitability of our own demise, the practical matter of how our remains are handled at the end often remains a very personal decision about our final act in this life.
When it comes to “disposing” of our mortal remains, the two most common methods are burial or cremation. However, a traditional burial, especially when it involves an embalmed corpse that has been treated with formaldehyde, methanol, and other preservatives, results in a host of toxic chemicals leaching into the ground during decomposition. Cremation has a similar effect on the air, releasing of soot, carbon monoxide, dioxins, furans, mercury, and other metals—according to the Funeral Consumers Alliance of North America, 912,000 bodies are cremated each year in the US alone, releasing an estimated 246,240 tonnes of carbon dioxide.
In recent years, more effort has been made to offer greener alternatives for funerary arrangements that are less harmful, or can even benefit the environment. Artist Jae Rhim Lee, co-founder of the US-based company Coeio, is one of a growing number of people who are looking for ways to make the way we depart this world a gentler, greener gesture to the Earth and those still living here, while at the same time encouraging us to confront conventional attitudes about the process of death and dying.
“The choice to have a green burial reflects a deep understanding of our place in the larger ecosystem and the cosmos,” said Lee, whose solution is an innovative burial shroud lined with specially cultivated mushroom spores. (Creators)
“I was inspired by the idea that mushrooms are the master decomposers of the earth and thereby the interface organisms between life and death,” observed Lee, who found herself asking the question: “Could mushrooms be the symbol and tool for a cultural shift in how we think about death and our relationship to the planet?” (Co.Exist, Coeio)
The human body accumulates a significant amount of toxic chemicals over the course of a lifetime. According to the US Center for Disease Control, the average person is exposed to some 265 environmental chemicals, including heavy metals and pesticides, which are later released into the environment as the body decomposes. “We are both responsible for, and victims of, our own pollution,” Lee said in a 2011 TED talk.
For the human body, death is merely the beginning of a slow cycle of decay and decomposition. Mushrooms, which are highly effective at decomposing and breaking down dead tissue, help accelerate that process. They also have the ability to remove and break down toxins from the substances on which they grow and feed, a process called mycoremediation, while heavy metals are accumulated within the mushroom itself rather than being released into the environment.
“This technology speeds the return to earth through decomposition, it remediates toxins we accumulate over a lifetime, and it speeds nutrient delivery back to plants,” said Coeio cofounder Mike Ma. (takepart)
Lee is also optimistic that her unconventional approach will not only add momentum to the movement toward a greener approach to living and dying, but also help engender a new perspective on mortality and death. “I want to propose a different way of thinking about death that moves us toward death acceptance,” she said. “I think death acceptance is a critical aspect of protecting our environment.” (The New York Times)
This Mushroom Suit Digests Your Body After You Die (Science Alert)
Designing a mushroom death suit (New Scientist)
Mushroom Suits, Biodegradable Urns and Death’s Green Frontier (The New York Times)
When You Die, This Mushroom Suit Will Eat Your Body (Co.Exist)
This ‘Death Suit’ Makes Burials Eco- and Wallet-Friendly (takepart)
Flesh-Eating Mushrooms Are the Future of Burial Tech (Creators)
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