Artist Jae Rhim Lee thinks we’re going about death all wrong. We dress up our deceased loved ones in their favorite outfits (or ours), embalm them with chemicals like formaldehyde (which the US Department of Health and Human Services recently upgraded from a probable carcinogen to a known carcinogen), and put them in a box (with a grave liner) before putting them in the ground. All of these things aim “to preserve the body and protect it from the environment, with the idea that decomposition is something to be avoided,” Lee says. “And it’s a losing battle. Funeral directors will claim that the body will be preserved, and of course it’s not true.”
Lee says she suspects that modern, Western burial ritual is really just a way to distance ourselves from death—and thus our own mortality. She suggests that we should embrace decomposition and has launched the Infinity Burial Project as a way to encourage and accelerate the process. Lee, who did her graduate work in the visual arts program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she maintains an independent research fellowship, is developing a mushroom strain that is specifically trained to digest the tissues of the human body. She's even designed a prototype of a burial suit that can be seeded with the mushroom’s spores.
“It’s definitely a concept that would be workable,” says microbial ecologist Scott Bates of the University of Colorado at Boulder. There’s no doubt fungi can decay human flesh, he says, pointing to the example of Mark Tatum, a patient from Kentucky who lost a portion of his face to an aggressive Mucormycosis infection in 2000. “Fungi are certainly masters at producing extracellular enzymes that are going to be involved in breaking down [organic] components.”
Starting with edible fungi, such as oyster mushrooms, Lee runs a small-scale selective breeding program in a DIY lab, a sterile area in her home where she collects her own discarded body tissues (hair, skin, nails, etc.), and incorporates them into the culture medium for the mushrooms. The project is still in the early stages, and she says she doesn’t yet have any data to share on how well the fungi are at breaking down the tissues. But she’s hopeful that by selecting the most effective strains to breed, she will evolve an efficient man-eating mushroom.
The burial suit Lee's developed is a cotton body covering made with crocheted netting, into which a liquid mixture of mushroom spores can be embedded.
In addition to helping decompose the body more quickly, Lee expects that the fungi will help break down some of the toxins in the body. A national biomonitoring program hosted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has identified 219 toxic chemicals in the body, she says. “It really points to the fact that our bodies are pretty toxic.”
There are a few concerns, however, says Glenys McGowan of the School of Social Science at the University of Queensland in Australia. How, for example, will the new fungi strain affect the existing soil organisms when introduced into the ground in potentially high concentrations in a cemetery? “Introducing a large volume of a particular species of fungus into a soil environment might have the effect of unbalancing the natural soil biota of that area,” she wrote in an email. Indeed, such accumulation of naturally-occurring fungi already exists in some cemeteries.
Furthermore, there is the question of effectiveness. “Are there fungi that can decay human bodies? For sure. And could those strains be developed? Yeah, they likely could. But is it more effective than nature?” wonders Bates. “If you just put a dead body in the soil, the environment would take care of that.”
Then, of course, there are the religious and spiritual matters to consider, McGowan says. “If nothing remains of the body, how will the dead be commemorated?”
But Lee maintains that her fungal method of burial could be just as meaningful as placing flowers on a casket. "The body is this daily reminder that we are mortal," she says. "The burial project came about partially because I was thinking about a way of building [a] kind of intimacy with the body and acceptance of these basic processes of physicality and mortality of the body."