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[Exclusive] Flesh-Eating Mushrooms Are the Future of Burial Tech

...And it's beautiful. A groundbreaking green burial exhibition emerges in advance of NYFW, courtesy of a collaboration between Coeio and the Ace Hotel.

This NYFW, Ace Hotel New York will showcase garments no one would wear in this lifetime. Natural Causes is an Infinity Burial Suit exhibition co-curated by Coeio, a "green burial" company that created the suit as a radical alternative to traditional funerary practices. The burial suit spawned from the notion that mushrooms could be used to naturally decompose and cleanse toxins from a dead body, an idea manifested by a spore-laden jumpsuit meant to harmoniously eliminate pollutants while nourishing plants in the burial area. The Ace Hotel gallery show kicks off September 8 and runs through the end of the month.

Coeio, founded by MIT-trained artist and inventor Jae Rhim Lee, began as an artistic provocation meant to challenge cultural attitudes towards death, but quickly grew into a product, co-created with fashion designer Daniel Silverstein, with the potential to revolutionize the funeral industry. Typical American burials involve pumping a body full of synthetic fillers and formaldehyde, a carcinogen, to preserve a corpse and make it look alive. Bodies are entombed in caskets varnished with toxic chemicals, and the EPA rates casket manufacturers as one of the worst hazardous waste generators. Cremation is hardly cleaner; every year, 5,000 lbs of mercury are released into the atmosphere from dental fillings.

Lee believes green funerals are the final frontier of environmental sustainability, largely because death is still extremely taboo. “The choice to have a green burial reflects a deep understanding of our place in the larger ecosystem and the cosmos,” she tells The Creators Project. Astrophysicists, in particular, have a keen grasp of this concept. Neil deGrasse Tyson has said he wants his body to be “buried not cremated, so that the energy contained gets returned to the earth, so the flora and fauna can dine upon it, just as I have dined.”

In 2011, well down the path of researching decompositional agents and prototyping burial shrouds, Lee gave a speech at the TEDGlobal Conference titled "My Mushroom Burial Suit." It has over 1.3 million views and prompted responses like, “This might be the best way to prevent future zombie attacks,” and “I love mushrooms and the thought of them transforming my body into something good for nature makes me happy and less afraid of death.”

“After the TED talk, lots of people wrote to me and wanted to buy the suit or to donate their bodies to the project,” Lee says. “It was a bit surreal—I would be sitting at lunch and get an email from a complete stranger saying, ‘You can have my body.’ I’m still blown away and of course really humbled when I get those messages.” One of the first to reach out was Dennis White, a 63-year-old from Woburn, MA suffering from Primary Progressive Aphasia, a terminal illness. Citing deGrasse Tyson’s final wishes, White asked to be Lee’s first human adopter. “It IS the future of burial in the US as well as the rest of the planet! And yours will clean the toxins as well. I’m impressed,” he wrote. Coeio guided White and his family through the planning process, a journey captured in the tender and heart-wrenching documentary, Suiting Dennis.

Suiting Dennis: A family story of green funeral from Coeio on Vimeo.

Designing for the deceased is not a glamorous job, but the Ace Hotel show offers dual benefits: promoting Coeio’s commercially available products and spreading the word about green burial as a safe and legal option. "We're genuinely intrigued by Jae Rhim's research because it's essentially high tech that uses naturally occurring resources. She looks at shifting the way that we cope with our environments, and with death, as a necessary element of life,” Kelly Sawdon, Partner and Chief Brand Officer of Ace Hotel says.

As the Infinity Burial Suit evolved, Lee also enlisted zero-waste fashion designer Silverstein to update the suit’s look, make it easier to dress a dead body, and accommodate the biomaterial. The garments in Natural Causes are his latest designs. Though destined for a biodegradable casket rather than a catwalk, Lee believes their beauty will help reframe the dialogue around death. “I grew up being really scared of death,” she says. “Today, I’m no death-accepting ninja, but my work has given me an expanded perspective that grounds me and keeps my fear in check.”

Learn more about Natural Causes, the exhibit co-produced by Coeio and Ace Hotel, here. To read more about Coeio and the Infinity Burial Suit, visit their website. And to learn about Coeio’s green burial containers for pets (yes, it’s awesome), click here.

Related:

Your Decaying Corpse Could Become a Tree

Going Out in Style: Creative Urns and Burial Alternatives

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