What’s new after death? A shroud created by the artist Jae Rhim Lee accelerates the decomposition process using mushrooms. In Italy, a duo of designers has conceived a biodegradable pod, inside which the corpse fertilizes the seed to grow into a tree. Two rising prototypes for a 100% green burial.
DIY eco-trends don’t end with our mortal existence. A natural burial, i.e. directly into the soil without any chemical intervention, is preferable for a number of excellent reasons: coffins are costly and consume a huge amount of resources (especially forest wood), embalming fluids used to slow decomposition contain high quantities of carcinogenic formaldehyde, while cremations pollute the air with carbon dioxide, mercury and other toxins…
In two separate places on our planet, in the United States and in Italy, two particularly salient prototypes have been developing over the last few years to pave the way toward a 100% green burial. Conceived for individual sales, they are already compatible with burial laws in some countries.
In the U.S., artist and MIT alumnus Jae Rhim Lee has created a shroud that facilitates decomposition thanks to her “infinity mushrooms”, which she has cultivated to feed on the human (or animal) corpse and clean up its toxins after burial. The Infinity Burial Project was originally an experimental art project. But in 2011, Jae Rhim Lee’s TED conference unexpectedly went viral, creating public interest and demand for the burial suit, and eventually leading her to set up a dedicated business. A pet cat and a terminally ill man were the first guinea pigs. Without even going through the typical crowdfunding phase, her startup Coeio plans to make the fungal shrouds available for individual sale by late 2016.
Jae Rhim Lee’s viral TED conference (2011):
“Any alternative to traditional burial practices is a welcome change,” says Coeio cofounder Mike Ma. “Cremation-based alternatives still require a large amount of energy and create airborne pollutants. Overall, our view is that the best path to dealing with the dead is to use the pathway that nature has done for millions—decompose naturally and return to the earth.”
In Italy, Anna Citelli and Raoul Bretzel have created Capsula Mundi, a biodegradable pod that envelops the body in a fetal position, along with the seed of a selected tree. Taking the concept of returning to the earth to renew the cycle of life even further, the decomposed corpse would fertilize the seed to grow into a tree within a sacred forest. Presented to the public for the first time in Milan in 2003, Capsula Mundi may just be the most poetic among many similar-themed projects that aim to reincarnate people as plants.
The duo received an encouraging bit of media attention during Lille 3000 and following their TEDx presentation in Turin in 2015. As this form of burial is not yet a legal option in Italy, they are still researching ways to introduce Capsula Mundi to countries where it is legal.
Anna Citelli and Raoul Bretzel’s TEDx conference (2015):
In the slightly longer term, there also exist at least two other promising international initiatives to implement scientific and urban solutions for more eco-friendly funerals.
In Sweden, Susanne Wiigh-Mäsak has developed the organic process of “promession”, which consists of dry-freezing the corpse, vibrating it into dust, extracting all the metals, and finally burying the remains in a biodegradable coffin. Not exactly DIY for now, but certainly an innovative attempt at simulating the natural process of returning to dust.
Back in the U.S., Katrina Spade launched the Urban Death Project, which involves building facilities dedicated to green funeral rites and composting corpses, at the neighborhood and community level. Her Kickstarter campaign, which ended in May 2015, raised a total of $91,378 (for an initial goal of $75,000).
Given the logistics and resources required for these last projects, their successful implementation will closely depend on local topographies, adopted laws and evolved mentalities.
In the meantime, there is no shortage of projects to encourage dialogue and inspire creative reflection on death, funerals and the afterlife, as seen by the living.
Presentation video of the Design for Death competition (2013):