Can Man-Eating Mushrooms Offer Us a Clean Death?

02/06/2016 11:59

What happens when you die? Spiritually speaking, we can only guess. But scientifically speaking, what happens to the human body after death is a rotten process. The decomposition begins on the inside: with cell death and the release of bacteria, and continues to the outside world where all manner of insects tuck in. Meanwhile, body tissue slowly rots down, and over the period of anywhere between two weeks and a year the protein of the human body decomposes and turns into dust. By doing so, it creates fertile soils.

Although our remains are part of the food chain, modern burial practices slow down or prevent the decomposition process. Embalming prevents body tissue from breaking down, hard coffins keep the hungry insects out, and cremation releases toxic gases into the atmosphere as well as using a lot of energy. Add this to concerns that we are running out of space to bury our dead. Throw in the potential spread of contaminants from cemeteries that cause water pollution and related illnesses. Consider the need to lower our emissions in the face of climate change. All these facts point to the need to create more efficient burial processes that reduce our impact on the environment as much as possible.

Luckily, the Infinity Burial Project proposes to do just this. Founder of the project Jae Rhim Lee has spent years feeding bits of her body to mushrooms and teaching her students to do the same, as a way of finding out which mushrooms are best at devouring humans. This process of cultivating mushrooms that consume humans is called 'decompiculture' and the idea behind it is that it promotes acceptance of and a personal engagement with the death and decay of the human body, by showing that our bodies are made of organic matter like all other life forms.

The fungi that have the 'wow' factor are selected and cultivated further through 'decompiculture', but the experiments are still in progress, so the exact flesh-eating combination is yet to be found. But here's the thing: eco-burial projects are on the rise around the world, and they already deal with some of the issues, but they do not remove toxins from the body that remain even after death. The fungi in the Infinity Project, on the other hand, are learning to consume the toxins that we have been exposed to by modern life. These industrial toxins stay in our bodies through life and death and they include lead, vinyl, formaldehyde, asbestos and Bisphenol A, to name a few. Just as nutrients found in human body tissue are broken down into soil, so too are the industrial toxins our bodies carry around in them. They are converted into soil and remain in the soil.

Enter the cultivated fungi. The Infinity Project has designed a Mushroom Burial Suit which is a full body suit that has a pattern embroidered into it with thread in the design of a specific type of mushroom's growth - mycelium, for those who know their 'shrooms. The thread is infused with mushroom spores. The Suit also carries a unique fluid with more mushroom spores in it, and what Jae calls 'Decompiculture Makeup', which contains a mixture of minerals, dried mushroom spores and a separate liquid culture. What happens when these different elements are combined is that they activate the mushroom spores in the thread to develop and grow when you put on the suit, enabling them to start eating.

Some people might flinch at the idea of feeding our skin, hair, nails, blood, bone, fat, tears, urine, faeces, and sweat to fungi, but Jae has been doing exactly this. It's not an unusual idea: there are already more than 200 species of carnivorous fungi on the planet that generally digest their meals by absorbing nutrients using enzymes. Perhaps it could even become a new sort of ritual for helping us to deal with the concept of death.

Death is a difficult concept for many of us to consider, but one of the biggest hurdles to overcome in the future is practical, not spiritual, since we are running out of burial sites. Some people argue that it is our human responsibility to do our bit for the planet, even in death, and being devoured by mushrooms may well be the ultimate act of low-carbon, earth-friendly recycling. So next time you enjoy stroganoff for dinner, think about that.

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