Environment

Eco-Friendly ‘Burial Suits’ Are on the Rise, But Are They Really Necessary?

Nature already does the work, cleaning out toxins through natural decomposition, for free.

Photo Credit: ichirica/Shutterstock

It goes without saying that death is a fact of life. As natural as birth and breathing. At some point, each of us will take our last breath and complete the cycle of life. With little variation, our bodies will be returned to Earth or burned and turned to smoke and ash.

It may also go without saying that the conventional way we have been practicing burial and cremation in this country has increasingly become more industrial, resource intensive, highly polluting, and disconnected from nature — the relationship to our dead more professionalized and sanitized. We have become accustomed to paying upward of $7,000 for a funeral that commonly includes embalming, which involves replacing the body’s blood and internal organs with a formaldehyde-rich cocktail of chemicals intended to temporarily preserve the body and hinder decomposition.

Once the dearly departed looks presentable for viewing, dressed for dinner, makeup applied, we place them in a hardwood or sealed steel casket, and then in a concrete or plastic vault deep in the ground or in a mausoleum above ground to ensure protection from nature’s decomposers. The trend toward cremation hardly fixes the disconnect. Here we place the body in a huge steel retort, burn fossil fuels for several hours at temperatures high enough to reduce the body to bones, which are then whirred into chunky ash in an industrial-strength blender and returned to the bereaved in a plastic bag and a cardboard box.

No wonder we long for an alternative!

In 2011, artist Jae Rhim Lee walked onto the TED stage in a curious black suit of her own design which she described as the second prototype of a burial suit infused with mushroom spores: a mushroom death suit. She proceeded to tell us about an artistic vision she had about mushrooms, death and decomposition. She sparked an imaginative nerve, firing us up to be a part of a new “decompi-culture,” to move away from death denial and body preservation toward a radical acceptance of death. Lee articulates what many of us who work with death and dying already know: Death is a transformative process. Her mushroom suit is a compelling symbol of that transformation. 

So what’s the problem? When Lee decided to take her idea out of the realm of imagination and art and into production, she and her company co-founder, Mike Ma, came up with a solution to an invented problem and people are lining up to pay for it. That curious black suit is one product among a growing number, bringing to the green burial movement what the funeral industry has brought to funerals for decades — convincing people they need to purchase something in order to “take responsibility” for our bodies in death, and marketing it on sketchy science. And like the funeral industry, they simultaneously promote discussion about death and funeral planning, which is necessary and needed, while subtly, and quite unintentionally sanitizing our image of death and decay. No longer will we have to seal our deceased in steel and concrete, but rather, slip on a fashionable suit rubbed with an “alternate embalming gel” and let nature do the work. But here’s the clincher: Nature already does the work, cleaning out toxins through natural decomposition, for free.

In one simple sentence in her TED talk (did we mention it has had over 1.2 million views?), Lee dismisses green or natural burial as not going far enough to address the problems associated with burial. Specifically, in her estimation, with a backing quote from the CDC, our bodies are warehouses of toxins, and as a result, nature’s decomposers need help if they are to make the toxins inert. However, it is disingenuous to hold up the Infinity Burial Suit as the only real alternative to contemporary disposition practices. Since 1998, when the first conservation burial ground was founded in South Carolina, green burial is increasingly becoming more available across the country. A green or natural burial consists of placing an un-embalmed body directly into the ground, wrapped in a natural-fiber shroud (which, in terms of cost, could literally be the sheet off your bed) or other readily biodegradable container. Once in the ground, the body begins to naturally decompose.

The central idea of the Infinity Burial Suit — that fungi will help to decompose our bodies, break down organic toxins, bind heavy metals, and help release nutrients contained in our tissues — is compelling at first glance. However, all of these things happen when un-embalmed bodies are buried in soil, without Infinity Suits, in shrouds or simple wooden boxes.

Native soil fungi (which include mushrooms) play a role in decomposing dead plants and animals, but they are not the only important corpse decomposers; in fact, they only show up later in the process. Researchers working at the Southwest Texas Applied Forensic Facility (STAFS) have recently undertaken an experiment to see just which organisms are responsible for decomposing human bodies. The study demonstrated that the first wave of decomposition is carried out by hundreds, if not thousands, of species of bacteria that make many parts of our bodies home, especially our guts. They found that bodies will typically bloat early in the decomposing process, which appears to signify a shift from aerobic bacteria, which need oxygen to thrive, to anaerobic bacteria, which can live in oxygen-depleted environments.

Bacteria are well suited for jumpstarting decomposition right after death. Soon, the community expands to include a wide range of insects, worms, nematodes and fungi. Soils are naturally rich in a wide diversity of fungi and bacteria, with non-agricultural soils tending to be dominated by fungi and more nutrient-rich agricultural soils dominated by bacteria. In any Introduction to Soils class, one learns that a gram of topsoil, about the volume of a pencil eraser, will support over a billion soil organisms, the vast majority of which are bacterial and fungal decomposers. The efficacy of the soil decomposer community has been honed by evolution over billions of years, and it shows, not by anything we see but by what we don’t see. We are not surrounded by dead bodies of critters everywhere we look; they’ve decomposed.

In the process of breaking down human bodies, the soil-decomposing food web also makes quick work of many compounds some might consider “toxins” that exist in our bodies when we die. While pharmaceuticals, or pesticide residues, or endocrine disruptors that originate from plastics such as BPA can be detected in our tissues, they make up a minute percentage of our bodies. These simple organic or carbon-based compounds are no more challenging to break down than pancreatic fluid or finger nails. Heavy metals are not broken down by fungi or bacteria, but can be bound or “chelated” to organic matter in soils and stabilized in non-reactive forms for a long time. Heavy metals build up in soils and become an environmental concern only when large amounts of contaminated substances like sewage sludge are added to the same field over and over again for a long time. But the amounts of heavy metals contained in a human body laid in a grave are inconsequential.  

When pushed to explain how purchasing and wearing an Infinity Burial Suit might improve on what nature already does, Lee and Ma frequently claim that the body will decompose faster, implying that somehow, faster is better. There is no evidence that wearing a suit makes a body decompose faster. But even if it did, why would that be viewed as an improvement? Faster decomposition means that carbon leaves the body and returns to the atmosphere as CO2 more quickly. It also means that nutrients such as nitrogen are released more rapidly. What if they are released at a speed faster than surrounding plants can actually take them up? Then they make their way into waterways and cause algae blooms just as fertilizer pollution does. A tree trunk is in no hurry to decompose, so does it matter whether body decomposition is completed in one, five or 10 years? Is nature in a hurry?

In conversations with Lee, she has indicated that dead bodies wearing the Infinity Burial Suit can be used to help restore soil function to sites that have been badly degraded by mining, construction or other industrial activities. While the vision of using corpses to jumpstart restoration in mine-tailings or superfund sites is not yet featured on the Coieo website, it seems to be one motivation behind the project. Using burial for restoration is an appealing idea, because soil organic matter can be a missing ingredient in rebuilding ecosystems. However, there is no evidence that a fungal suit will have any impact on the decomposition of a corpse in a highly degraded soil undergoing restoration, or in any soil for that matter. As noted, bacteria, already present in the body, represent the most important initial cast of decomposers. But even later in the decomposition process, it is unclear whether mushroom-growing fungi (as opposed to other soil fungi) will thrive on a cadaver, in part because they tend to prefer growing on materials such as logs that have much more carbon relative to nitrogen than do human bodies.  

All sorts of people have been captivated by the Infinity Burial Project, and for good reason. In Mike Ma’s own words, "Some have very strong environmental views and [to them] the thought of embalming's toxins or cremation's energy use is crazy." Others are "looking for ways to connect with their family by making their world views and ideas known through their own death." Many green burial advocates have also embraced the idea. Unfortunately, critical discussion about the claims Lee and Ma are making about their product is mostly absent. Journalists writing about the Infinity Burial project are not even asking if there is any evidence to back up their claims. Wildly misleading information is being perpetuated about the suit. A Grist article states in the headline, “Mushroom Burial Suit Turns Dead Bodies Into Clean Compost.” TakePart says, “This ‘Death Suit’ Makes Burials Eco- and Wallet-Friendly, a suit made of mushroom spores helps decompose bodies sustainably.”

Going out green is a pretty simple thing to do, and it doesn’t need to involve buying a new green-technology product. If it helps your family to have essential conversations about death by providing a symbol you can all get behind, then by all means, get in line for the Infinity Burial Suit, or the burial pod that will turn your loved one into a tree, or the Bios-Urn holding the deceased’s ash and a tree seed. These products are all playing an important role in the conversation Jae Rhim Lee so beautifully articulated in her TED Talk, a move away from death denial toward death acceptance.

However, if the desire is a simple return to the elements, none of these products are necessary. The Earth and her host of soil microbes are already well prepared to receive bodies, decompose them, remediate toxins, deliver nutrients to trees and other plants, and restore soil health without requiring yet another human invention.

RELATED: Don't Let the Mortician Turn You Into a Superfund Site: Alternatives to Toxic Embalming

Sarah Crews is the director of Heart Land Prairie Cemetery in central Kansas, and serves on the board of the National Home Funeral Alliance. She has written for Natural Transitions Magazine.

Tim Crews is the director of research at the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas and ecologist specializing in plant and soil interactions. 

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