Utne Blogs > Science and Technology

The Sustainable Mushroom Death-Suit

by Will Wlizlo


Tags: mushrooms, death, sustainability, environmental stewardship, death denial, Jae Rhim Lee, New Scientist, science and technology, Will Wlizlo,

jae-rhim-lee-1 

For most, death is followed by one of two options: burial or cremation. But both of those options pose serious environmental risks to the living. Burial is preceded by embalming, and the main chemical used to embalm a body is the known-carcinogen formaldehyde.  Cremation is energy intensive and releases massive amounts of greenhouse gases and heavy metals into the atmosphere. Visual artist and human-environment researcher Jae Rhim Lee imagines a third way to rest in peace that is more in harmony with our planet: donning a fungi-laced death shroud that consumes corpses.

jae-rhim-lee-2Lee calls her outré idea The Infinity Burial Project. (Or, “A Modest Proposal for the Postmortem Body.”) Here’s how it works. Lee has been cultivating shiitake and oyster mushrooms on her own fingernail clippings and strands of hair, hoping to find a strain of fungi that is quick to grow on decaying human tissue. When she finds a suitable strain, she plans to embroider a “Mushroom Death Suit” with spore-infused threads. The spores may be added to a “decompiculture kit” that can be used in funeral make-up and non-toxic embalming fluids—speeding the process along. Next, when Lee (or whoever) is buried, the fungi get to work—Lee also chose mushrooms for their innate ability to break down industrial toxins in bodies and the surrounding soil. Not only does the Infinity Mushroom prevent further damage to the environment from burial practices, it also helps clean up existing pollution.

Environmental stewardship isn’t Lee’s only motivation. Learning to accept death is psychologically and socially healthy, and modern people can use a little help in that department, she argues. “I am interested in cultural death denial,” Lee told New Scientist’s CultureLab blog after a recent talk at TED Global,

and why we are so distanced from our bodies, and especially how death denial leads to funeral practices that harm the environment—using formaldehyde and pink make-up and all that to make your loved one look vibrant and alive, so that you can imagine they’re just sleeping rather than actually dead . . . So I was thinking, what is the antidote to that? For me the answer was this mushroom.

Source: New Scientist 

Images courtesy of Jae Rhim Lee.