Posted 20 July 2011, by Alison George, New Scientist (Reed Business Information Ltd.), newscientist.com
(Image: James Duncan Davidson/TED)
Artist and inventor Jae Rhim Lee has come up with an unusual way to confront our attitudes about death. At the TEDGlobal conference last week, she talked to New Scientist about the flesh-eating Infinity Mushroom she’s trying to cultivate.
Tell me about the Infinity Burial Project that you’re working on?
I am interested in cultural death denial, and why we are so distanced from our bodies, and especially how death denial leads to funeral practices that harm the environment – using formaldehyde and pink make-up and all that to make your loved one look vibrant and alive, so that you can imagine they’re just sleeping rather than actually dead. The US government recently upgraded formaldehyde from a probable carcinogen to a known carcinogen, so by trying to preserve the body we poison the living.
So I was thinking, what is the antidote to that? For me the answer was this mushroom – the Infinity Mushroom. It is a symbol of a new way of thinking about death.
What exactly is an Infinity Mushroom?
I thought I could train a toxin-cleaning edible mushroom to eat my body. These mushrooms, which usually grow on wood and decaying material in the forest, can be trained to grow on pretty much any organic material and break it down. So I started collecting my hair, nails and skin so I could pick the best mushrooms to become Infinity Mushrooms, to recognise and eat my body after I die.
Do the mushrooms like your offcasts? Are they thriving?
Yes, so far. They’re growing. Both the cultivation of this mushroom and the process of collecting my hair and skin are about overcoming my squeamishness. It’s like if you find a piece of your hair in your soup, there’s a kind of uncanny moment – so part of the process of working with these mushrooms is confronting that.
What kind of mushrooms are you using?
Right now I’m working with shiitake and oyster mushrooms.
Have you got a lab to do this in?
I have my own little DIY lab. I made a glovebox out of plastic storage boxes, and it all kind of works. You don’t need thousands of dollars worth of equipment to do this. My lab is a white tarp tent, it’s just a simple space, and it’s in my home.
Why a mushroom? Why not a worm?
It could have been a worm. But I felt that mushrooms were special because I found out that they clean up environment toxins in soil. There’s no single mushroom that kills all environmental toxins, but they cover a lot of ground.
What also started it was the mycologist Paul Stamets who I studied with. He is kind of the grandfather of people who work with mushrooms. He talks about the mushroom as being the interface organism between life and death, that mushrooms are the master decomposers. So what better organism to work with?
You gave your talk at the TED conference last week wearing your mushroom death suit. How does the suit work?
It’s basically a fitted organic cotton suit with a crocheted netting on top in a pattern resembling the growth of mushroom mycelium, and the netting is where the Infinity Mushroom spores will initially grow. I’m thinking it might not actually work, because mushroom spores are hard to grow outside of petri dishes. So the next thing I’m thinking of is using gelatin as, basically, a second skin. As it dissolves it provides start-up ingredients for growth.
Do you have to be buried to use this death suit?
I imagine the mushroom suit being used above ground but covered.
Could you do animal tests?
Yes, I have some expired meat in my freezer and I’m going to try that.
In your talk you said that some people had volunteered to try out a mushroom death suit after their death?
They’re not officially signed up, they expressed an interest. A number of people here [at TED] have also come up to me and asked about this. I think that’s another step: when you actually sign up and place an order. It requires another level of acceptance about death.
Your talk was very amusing, but I sense there was a something rather deep underlying it?
It’s the idea that somehow death acceptance is needed for environmental stewardship. All the industrial toxins we emit into the atmosphere and the soil become part of our bodies. That is difficult to accept because it means we are also physical beings, animals, who will die and decay.
Do you think that one day lots of people will have their own mushroom death suits?
That’s the hope. I think of this in steps, and the next step is to get this to actually work… but it’s something people could adopt on a wider scale. I fully acknowledge that this requires a cultural shift towards an acceptance of death and decomposition.