Traditional funeral services, such as embalming and cremation, contribute to our carbon footprints even after our deaths, so a growing number of environmentally conscious people are looking into sustainable alternatives for laying themselves or loved ones to rest.
Most recently, Luke Perry’s daughter, Sophie Perry, revealed over the weekend that her father, who died at 52 after suffering a massive stroke in March, was buried in a biodegradable mushroom suit from Coeio.com that will help decompose his remains into nutrients that return to Earth.
The self-recycling organic cotton suit (which also comes in a shroud style) is infused with a biomix of mushroom mycelium and other microörganisms that are supposed to aid in decomposition, work to neutralize toxins found in the body, and transfer nutrients to plant life, so that the remains of the person lost end up helping create new life. “My dad discovered it, and was more excited by this than I have ever seen him,” his daughter wrote on Instagram. “He was buried in this suit, one of his final wishes. They are truly a beautiful thing for this beautiful planet, and I want to share it with all of you.”
Coeio founder Jae Rhim Lee, 43, is an MIT graduate who introduced her $1,500 mushroom suit (now called the Infinity Suit) by wearing it in a 2008 fashion show at the Museum of Science in Boston, followed by a 2011 TED talk that’s been viewed more than 1.5 million times worldwide. She told MarketWatch that she took the “Beverly Hills, 90210” star’s order years ago, when he called her to discuss her idea to return the human burial process to its roots — although she didn’t realize she was speaking with a future customer at the time.
“We had talked a few years before his death, because he was interested in the company and wanted to learn more about it,” she said. “I didn’t know he had put [the suit] in his advance-care directives until his family members called me after he died.”
Perry’s family even invited her to the memorial service in Los Angeles, before the actor was laid to rest at a farm outside of Nashville, Tenn. “I’ve worked closely with a couple of people who have used the suit, and of course it’s really sad,” said Lee. “But, ultimately, the power of the suit is that it creates the need for meaningful planning and discussion around death.”
The mechanics of death and decomposition make many people uncomfortable, Lee explained, which is why a $20 billion funeral industry has grown to embalm or cremate human remains for tasteful interment. “Through our bodies, we exercise our denial of death by embalming the body, and making people look like they’re just sleeping, and having an open-casket funeral,” she said.
Problem is, even in death, humans are killing the planet. U.S. burials entail the use of approximately 4.3 million gallons of embalming fluid a year, according Cornell University research shared by the Green Burial Council, and 827,060 gallons of that is formaldehyde, methanol and benzene. What’s more, caskets and vaults use 20 million board-feet of hardwoods, including rainforest woods, as well as 17,000 tons of copper and bronze, 64,500 tons of steel — which can leach iron, copper, lead, zinc and cobalt into the environment.
Cremation isn’t much better, as the process uses fossil fuels to reach and maintain 1,900 degrees Fahrenheit for more than two hours, which release mercury into the air and water, and creates byproducts like nitrogen oxide, dioxins and particulates that are found in acid rain.
What’s more, death-care costs have skyrocketed; while the average funeral was $706 in 1960, the average traditional casket funeral today runs between $8,000 and $10,000. So a growing number of Americans (about 43% today) are choosing to be cremated, instead, which costs anywhere from $1,100 to $5,000, including funeral costs.
So alternatives like Lee’s $1,500 mushroom suit or the mushroom shroud, which don’t require a casket, can be as wallet-friendly as they are Earth-friendly. While there are not any statistics tracking the number of green burials across the country yet, the National Funeral Directions Association reports that more than half (53.8%) of consumers are interested in a green funeral because of the environmental benefits and cost savings.
Indeed, the growing “green funerals” movement features a number of more sustainable after-life alternatives, such as urns that biodegrade and grow into trees. The Montreal-based Roots sells Eco Tree Urns ($395 with seeds, or $380 without) made of recycled coffee grounds, dolomite lime and natural clay; one places the cremated remains inside the urn, which can then be planted in the ground. (There are smaller urns for pets, running $175 to $190.)
Passages International Inc., based in Albuquerque, has a variety of sustainable options, including biodegradable caskets woven from wicker, seagrass or bamboo, as well as urns that are biodegradable in water and in soil, depending on where one is laid to rest.
“I think that the green-burial movement is the final frontier of the sustainability movement,” said Lee.
Still, plenty of people are squeamish about being buried wrapped in flesh-eating mushrooms. “The responses have been all over the place, ranging from people saying, ‘Yes, this is something I want to use,’ and then on the other end of the spectrum, there was the one who wrote to me that, ‘You’re a disgrace to the funeral industry. I hope the mushrooms eat you soon,’ or something to that effect,” she said. “I thought it was funny. I was like, ‘Yes — I do hope the mushrooms eat me someday.’ ”