Where do you want to go when you die? While traditionally humans have employed the help of formaldehyde to remain in pristine condition while they rest six feet under, in recent years the emergence of more eco-friendly funerary options have grown in popularity, and now there’s a new casket option on the block: living mushroom coffins.
The Loop Cocoons, as they’re known, aren’t actually made of mushroom but mycelium, a network of filaments called hyphae which exist underground as the vegetative part of fungus. Over 92 percent of all plants species on Earth rely on mycelium, says Loop, which acts like “Nature’s Internet” to distribute nutrients cross-species (and may even enable mushrooms to talk to each other).
So how can mycelium help us manage our dead? The Loop Cocoon is marketed as a bacteria-rich coffin which breaks down over a period of 45 days to create a toxin-free, nutritious soil that can support ecosystems and boost biodiversity.
“We are here to restore nature,” says Loop on its website. “We do this by bringing human nutrients back into the cycle-of-life in the most natural way: with a living mycelium-based coffin.”
“Let’s close the loop of life,” they say, with the world’s first living coffin made from nature’s greatest recycler. As well as being biodegradable, the coffins are grown in just seven days using “waste ingredients” from the Netherlands.
The eco-friendly alternative to wood, says founder Bob Hendrikx, has applications beyond burials, potentially representing a greener building material.
“We are missing out on a lot of opportunities by killing intelligent organisms and turning them into a bench. This thousand-year-old species, we turned it into a piece of wood; that’s what we’re good at,” he told Wired. “Nature has been here for billions of years, and we have been here for just a few thousand. So why do we insist on working against it?”
Mycelium has certainly proved its potential, having already been used for insulation and building towers. However, Hendrikx is working to overcome some of its limitations with a veneer of dead fungal material that could prevent mycelium from growing beyond its desired limits and protect other materials like wood, which it’s capable of invading.
There remains much to be proven about Loops’ living coffin, namely how well the mycelium reactivates once buried and how long it might take for the body it contains to decompose, but it joins a roster of interesting start ups exploring potentially greener alternatives to burial.
Recompose is one – a company which uses a mixture of wood chips, alfalfa, and straw to form a cocoon inside which microbes will digest the body into a rich compost over 30 days. The company is driven by a desire to reduce the deforestation and chemical leaching associated with burial and embalming, which together cut down around 4 million acres (1.6 million hectares) of forest and leaches 800,000 gallons of embalming fluid to the ground annually.
Then there’s aquamation, a process opted for by Desmond Tutu, which uses a heated alkaline solution to break down the body, leaving behind only the skeleton. The body is placed inside a pressurized vessel filled with a mixture of water and potassium hydroxide (lye) and heated, breaking down the organic matter over several hours.
However, arguably one of the greenest burial alternatives on Earth is that practiced by Buddhists in the Himalayan region of Tibet and Mongolia, known as sky burials. It involves bodies being given up to birds of prey high in the mountains, meaning a person’s death leaves no trace behind while simultaneously supporting wildlife.
Then again, depending on where you live, you could just try your back yard.