Jae Rhim Lee: Is There A Better Way To Be Buried? Can we commit our bodies to a cleaner, greener Earth, even after death? Jae Rhim Lee says it's possible by using a special burial suit seeded with pollution-gobbling mushrooms.

Is There A Better Way To Be Buried?

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

Would you say that you - would you say that you have an interest in death?

JAE RHIM LEE: (Laughter). I'm obsessed with death. And...

RAZ: This is artist Jae Rhim Lee.

LEE: I go by Jae Rhim or J.R. I also go by Jae Grim or Jae Reaper. I have a bunch of nicknames. (Laughter).

RAZ: Jae Rhim's art focuses a lot on the human body. She's created wearables, furniture and sculptures of bodies at rest, but she's always wondered about what we do with our bodies after we die. So a few years ago, Jae Rhim started an art project inspired by that thought, a thought she'd had since she was a kid.

LEE: Someone very close to me experienced a loss and was in sort of an extended period of grief. And I grew up witnessing that and really learning as a child that, you know, death is an end and that when someone close to you dies, it's sort of the end of your life in many ways. And so the project really was inspired by this kind of deeper need to find a new kind of way of thinking about death, to think about death as a moment of transformation. And I'm not a religious person so I needed something that was based in sort of things that didn't require faith. So for me, that meant returning to the earth.

RAZ: And when Jae Rhim says returning to the earth, she means our bodies after we die. And not in a casket, not cremated, but buried into the ground to decompose and eventually create new life. But, as she explained on the TED stage, there's just one problem - our bodies are full of toxic stuff.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

LEE: The Centers for Disease Control in the U.S. says we have 219 toxic pollutants in our bodies, and this includes preservatives, pesticides and heavy metals like lead and mercury. So what happens to all these toxins when we die? The short answer is they return to the environment in one way or another, continuing the cycle of toxicity. But our current funeral practices make the situation much worse. If you're cremated, all those toxins I mentioned are released into the atmosphere. And this includes 5,000 pounds of mercury from our dental fillings alone every year. And in a traditional American funeral, a dead body is covered with fillers and cosmetics to make it look alive. It's then pumped with toxic formaldehyde to slow decomposition, a practice which causes respiratory problems and cancer in funeral personnel. So by trying to preserve our dead bodies, we deny death, poison the living and further harm the environment.

RAZ: OK so if, as you say, cremation is bad, if burial is bad, what's left?

LEE: I mean, one of the thoughts that I had was how can we - you know, a lot of green products purport to do less harm, right? You're using less fossil fuels. You're using less energy. You're using less resources. But I felt that we could take a step further, that not only could our burial and our death be less harmful, but actually beneficial to the earth where we can use our bodies and we can return all the nutrients in our bodies to the earth and have that be a moment of transformation and renewal.

RAZ: So when you die, like, how would - how do you want to be buried?

LEE: I'd like to be buried with mushrooms.

RAZ: Mushrooms? She said mushrooms.

Can you explain that a little bit, Jae Rhim?

LEE: Yeah. So mushrooms emit enzymes that break down organic material - gourmet mushrooms, like oyster mushrooms and shiitake mushrooms and shaggy manes and hen of the woods.

RAZ: Yum.

LEE: Turns out that they are really amazing toxin remediators. So they clean the toxins in the soil. They are the master decomposers. They're one of the first species to come in and help decompose organic material in the forest.

RAZ: So when you look at mushrooms, you're not thinking dinner, you're thinking death?

LEE: (Laughter). I think both. I normally don't think about death when I'm, you know, faced with some mushrooms in the grocery store. I'm thinking about how I'm going to saute them with butter and olive oil and maybe a little soy sauce.

RAZ: Wine, some chives.

LEE: Exactly.

RAZ: I mean, normally, I think most of us think about them that way. But it turns out they actually are pretty useful for death.

LEE: Absolutely.

RAZ: Mushrooms, specific types of mushrooms - like, shiitakes and oysters - Jae Rhim actually calls them infinity mushrooms. They can decompose human bodies pretty quickly.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

LEE: All right. So for some of you, this may be really, really out there.

(LAUGHTER)

LEE: Just a little.

(APPLAUSE)

LEE: I realize this is not the kind of relationship we usually aspire to have with our food. We want to eat, not be eaten by our food, right? I imagine the infinity mushroom as a symbol of a new way of thinking about death and the relationship between my body and the environment. See, for me, cultivating the infinity mushroom is more than just scientific experimentation or gardening or raising a pet. It's a step towards accepting the fact that someday I will die and decay. It's also a step towards taking responsibility for my own burden on the planet.

RAZ: OK. So this might be a good place to explain that Jae Rhim isn't suggesting we just, like, throw a bunch of mushrooms on top of a dead body. She's actually suggesting something a little different - because for her appearance on the Ted stage, Jae Rhim wore a special outfit. She was dressed from head to toe in a black shroud with white netting sewn on top which she calls her ninja pajamas. But the outfit was actually a burial suit.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

LEE: A burial suit infused with mushroom spores. The mushroom death suit.

(LAUGHTER)

LEE: I'm wearing the second prototype of this burial suit. It's covered with a crocheted netting that is embedded with mushroom spores. I'm also making a cocktail of capsules that contain infinity mushroom spores and other elements that speed decomposition and toxin remediation. These capsules are embedded in a nutrient-rich jelly, a kind of second skin which dissolves quickly and becomes baby food for the growing mushrooms.

RAZ: OK so let me see if I understand this. This suit basically turns our bodies into mulch, right, like, it turns us into this really nutrient-rich soil?

LEE: Absolutely. That's the intention of it. And it not only does that, it helps deliver nutrients to plant roots so that they grow better.

RAZ: This might be kind of, like, a dumb question, but, what if it works so well that, like, trees and plants start, like, growing out of the grave and then you just, like, can't see it anymore?

LEE: That actually would be beautiful.

RAZ: So this idea, it's not just an out-there art project anymore. It's actually become a real thing. And since giving this talk back in 2011, Jae Rhim got so many requests for her mushroom burial suit that she decided to start a company to sell them. And today, just like a casket or a gravestone, you can buy one for you or for someone you love.

But don't you think there might be a resistance from some people who might think, like, do I really want the last memory of me to be in, like, a mushroom suit?

LEE: Definitely. (Laughter).

RAZ: Like, you're walking by the casket and you're like, he's in a mushroom suit.

LEE: (Laughter). Right. Well, my hope is that the suit will be this kind of beautiful object and that the vision of the person in the suit is actually something that's beautiful.

RAZ: Like, angelic - beautiful and sort of glowing.

LEE: Possibly. Or beautiful and rock 'n' roll. (Laughter).

RAZ: So in some ways it's like, maybe this is kind of the beginning of how we can rethink death, you know? Like, instead of this end, it's more of a beginning.

LEE: It's a beginning, and it's also a moment in our cycle, right, that we come from all the nutrients in the earth, and then we consume the nutrients in the earth and then we return to the earth and then redeliver those nutrients back to the earth. So death is just a moment in that cycle.

RAZ: Artist Jae Rhim Lee. You can find out more about the mushroom burial suit at coeio.com. That is C-O-E-I-O dot com. And you can watch her full talk at ted.com. More ideas about rethinking the narrative of death in just a minute. I'm Guy Raz, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

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