After Life Style?
Needing a moment of reflection or sipping tea in one of your local death cafes and in need of a good conversational topic? South Korean born US resident artist with degrees in psychology and visual studies, Jae Rhim Lee and her detoxifying burial suit with flesh eating mushroom spores is a great and different topic for conversation or self-reflection. So great of a topic that she was invited to do a Ted Talk on it about 5 years ago. Now that the concept and related company are in a more mature phase, I wanted to check and follow-up with my previous curiosity when I first became aware of her. Initially being exposed to her and this new product, I was left with the question where it would go. Jae Rhim’s answers in this interview, which I was happy to conduct, definitely filled in the gaps and was yet another personal moment for me to reflect and think about this topic which rarely comes to mind for me.
Hope it does something similar for you, is satisfying and eye-opening. We definitely are curious to your thoughts.
First some background: The Infinity Burial Suit is a handcrafted garment that is worn by the deceased. It has a built in biomix, made up of of mushrooms and other microorganisms that together do three things; aid in decomposition, work to neutralize toxins found in the body and transfer nutrients to plant life. The end result of being buried in the Infinity Burial Suit, or any of Coeio’s products, is that bodies are transformed into vital nutrients that enrich the earth and foster new life.
What is the art behind the burial suit?
To fit with the idea of being natural and returning to the circle of life, we make our suit from 100% organic cotton and biomaterial so it’s completely biodegradable. The suit was co-designed with zero waste fashion designer Daniel Silverstein, whose values are similar to Coeio’s. The suit and shroud are relatively form-fitting (as compared to traditional products used in funeral services) so it is meant to hug and appreciate the human body as much as it’s meant to be functionally useful. Everything is stitched to conform and fit around a body, which this Vogue writer describes well. Also if it’s interesting to note, we had an exhibition at the Ace Hotel for New York Fashion Week last year.
Death is complicated, personal, highly emotional and often bound to rituals. How do you navigate this human minefield of feelings, dogmas and emotions?
We try meet people where they are and let them know that however they’re feeling is normal / there’s no right way to say goodbye to somebody. We also help them personalize the funerals of loved ones (or themselves) as much as possible and, as you astutely pointed out, rituals are a big part of that. Funeral ceremonies without personalized rituals are the ones that people most often think back on and say, “That funeral didn’t fit who my [relative or friend] was. Sure it was respectful, but it just didn’t feel like what they would’ve wanted.”
Every person who purchases a suit (or shroud) is connected them with a Coeio team member who works with them personally through the process of funeral planning. One big area we focus on is rituals and how they can use them to incorporate their life passions, interests, memories, and most significant people into their funeral. If they’re planning for someone else, then we coach them on the questions to ask and help them brainstorm creative ways to do that. The process of coming up with rituals in itself is healing. Carrying them out even moreso. There are people who are uncomfortable with the idea of being burned (cremated) and people who are uncomfortable with the idea of being underground forever (buried). Sometimes it has to do with religious beliefs; other times they’re just views they’ve carried their whole life. Regardless, we challenge people to examine and discover their true values, but we don’t try to change them because death can be a very personal topic. We navigate the minefield by being educational and informative without pushing folks to feel like there’s any one way to have a “proper” funeral.
Did your personal roots, -background, -environment and life’s path so far, put you on track to this original and possibly for some controversial concept? Can you tell us a little about yourself and how?
I developed the concepts behind Infinity Burial after my first visit to the green cemetery in Northern California for an artist residency (Forever Fernwood, who later became Coeio’s first green burial partner). On a mission to create an “antidote” to the death denial culture I saw everywhere, I unexpectedly learned about the power of mushrooms for decomposition and toxin remediation at a permaculture school. I became inspired by the idea of mushrooms creating a cultural shift in how society thinks about death and our relationship with the planet. After collaborating with experts in science, art, design, and the funeral industry, I launched the Infinity Burial Suit. Infinity Burial evolved from a project to the full-fledged company Coeio in 2015.
I’d recommend these links to learn more about my background:
https://vimeo.com/143234514 (SKIP TO 23:15 for the origin story)
Can the mushroom spores and decompiculture kit be applied to more conventional burial products, like the lining of a coffin, a tomb or burial shrouds? If so, are you planning to make such alternatives available?
We don’t offer anything besides the shroud and the suit right now. However up until 2 months ago, we also offered casket liners which could be used with any coffin. It was for the purpose of breaking down biodegradable coffins like those made of pine wood or wicker, ideally used in conjunction with the suit or shroud. However they weren’t selling as well as the shrouds and suits so we stopped making them.
Is it your company’s intent to be involved in things like funeral pre-planning, where it seems to combine commercial product placement with a type of social work? If so, can you elaborate about how and to what extent?
Yes, we do offer pre-planning. We don’t see it as social work as much as we see it as a necessity for our business! While more folks are choosing to have green burials every year, it’s still not an option that’s easy to pursue. We acknowledge that people are taking a “left turn”, so-to-speak, when they choose to have any kind of green burial. Fortunately an Infinity Burial is not too much of a “left turn” because it’s just a clothing garment to dress a body (and legal everywhere). We’re also subtracting from the disposition process (not adding to it) by saying there’s no need for embalming, a casket, a vault, or grave liner. But going to the right places to strip away all of those things is in itself the “left-turn”, and that’s what we feel that we have to help people do in order for natural burials to be a practical option.
As I described above, we connect every person who purchases a suit/shroud with a planning consultant who works with them one-on-one to do their funeral planning. And this is at no additional cost. If someone is just starting their planning process, we’ll coach them on everything from how to approach loved ones about this difficult topic, how to find a burial location (we don’t own any burial grounds ourselves), difference between using a funeral director vs. using a home funeral guide, and the best paperwork & methods to make sure their wishes are carried out. This video is a preview of what pre-planning with us is like:
From the outside, a large part of today’s modern culture seems to be void of spirituality due to a dominant focus on the physical realm, where by some it is partially replaced with different kinds of activism like social, environmental, political, etc. In this financial and commercial age of technology, how do you seek to penetrate markets and generations primarily consumed with the more benign things of life?
This is a very loaded question and I think our perspective may be a bit skewed because in dealing with death, we talk to folks about their spiritual beliefs all the time. From my personal perspective, I don’t think spirituality has disappeared — I think it has just taken a different shape, like becoming broader and representative of the broader human condition.
Furthermore, we continue to work with nonsecular groups like Jewish and Muslim funeral homes who actually have views of death very complementary to an Infinity Burial. For example, according to Jewish faith a person should be wrapped in a plain white, cotton shroud (tachrichim) and buried so he or she is in direct contact with the earth. Similarly we have a natural colored cotton shroud that is meant to be in direct contact with the ground. You can learn more here, skipping to 13:00: https://soundcloud.com/user-544994582/episode-6-buried-with-purpose
All this is to say, spirituality continues to play an important role in how we seek to penetrate markets today.
But for a lot of other folks, the mechanical concept of how the suit works, how it breaks your body down, remediates the toxins, and returns nutrients to nature using cool biological materials, is what gets them interested in Coeio. Essentially the science of mushrooms and the power of mycoremediation is really exciting today whereas in previous generations, it may have been taboo to embrace the image of mushrooms breaking down a human body.
Also from a purely financial perspective, choosing a green burial almost always saves thousands of dollars compared to a traditional burial. By removing all of the outer containers and not paying for embalming, the major cost comes down to the burial plot and the suit/shroud itself. The average cost of a funeral in the United States is $6000 (taken from Parting.com). Our suit/shroud is $1500.
If any, can you explain what the environmental benefits of green burial using your suit are as opposed to eco-friendly or bio-cremation?
There are several benefits to Infinity Burials (our type of green burial) over bio-cremations. First off, you have to understand that our bodies aren’t as “clean” as they used to be centuries ago. By the simple virtue of living in a more polluted world, our body too has become a storehouse for lots of environmental toxins. You can read about the toxins we carry around in our bodies here:
From what I know, bio-cremation pulverizes everything but the bones into wastewater and sends it down the drain. What happens to those toxins? They get sent down too and presumably enter our waterways.
Infinity Burials on the other hand use the power of mushrooms to remediate those toxins. Mushrooms have a natural ability to break down most of those compounds into harmless components. You can read about it on our website FAQs and here: https://www.pbslearningmedia.org/resource/watsol.sci.ess.water.mycore/mycoremediation/
Infinity Burial products are also stitched and designed to send nutrients from your body to neighboring plant roots. You can consider it an efficient transfer system for nutrients to go from your body to nature. With bio-cremation, you completely lose out on the aspect that our bodies are extremely nutritious vessels that can actually leave the environment better-off.
I have to be honest I haven’t done the math on carbon consumption, but I would also argue that burials are less carbon intensive than biocremation. Though biocremation uses 6x less (or something like that) the amount of energy to breakdown a body compared to fire-based cremation, it still requires an input of energy. Burials don’t require any input of energy.
Of course there’s carbon use involved with the manufacturing and shipping of our products, but we do our best to offset that as a company. Our manufacturer is converting to using all renewable energy. We also plant two trees for every person that chooses to have an Infinity Burial with this organization: http://www.plantit2020.org/
Being in this business, is it sometime challenging dealing with death on a daily basis? How do you cope with the frequency and depth of emotional moments?
Yes, it is tough. Hearing tragedy every day is both depressing and uplifting. Depressing because of how quickly you can lose someone close to you and everything about your world changes. Uplifting because by the virtue of the job, everyone on our team is inspired to live each day to the fullest.
At the same time, we’re relatively removed from death compared to funeral directors and crematoriums who actually meet families face-to-face and handle deceased bodies. While we interact with loved ones too, it’s usually always over the phone. That’s why we are always trying to partner with funeral professionals and understand their perspective because ultimately they’re the ones actually carrying out the logistics. When someone passes away, our priority is just being there as another source of information and fulfilling rush orders whenever possible. There’s a big sense of fulfillment in receiving a note or photographs from a loved one who uses the shroud/suit and tells us how beautiful it was and how happy they are that they were able to fulfill that adopter’s dream of being buried in a “mushroom suit”.
Have you thought about partnering with fashion designers, in cases where there is demand for the concept embedded in more fashionable garments, as opposed to your so called ninja suit?
Yes! As described earlier, we have already partnered with Daniel Silverstein!
Are you diversifying through e.g. projects like your biofilm digestion filter for space stations or in other ways?
We have a whole suite of pet products under the brand name The Forever Spot (www.theforeverspot.com). We have shrouds similar to the human side, but we also sell cremation urns and pods all of which you can read about on the “purchase” page at the link above.
The pet products are doing well! They’ve been considerably helpful in funneling customers for the human products, particularly here in the United States. It seems that when people plan and carry out an Infinity Burial for a pet, imagining one for themselves becomes much easier.
Also (perhaps surprisingly), the death of a pet can be as difficult as a death of a person for many people, sometimes harder. A pet may be the only relationship from which a person is getting consistent, unconditional love for years of their life, so the loss of that kind of partner can be huge. The same ideas of helping people with grief and anticipating what’s to happen with their senior animal companion applies to working in the pet world.
How is the company doing, can you lift the veil of its roadmap and what can be expected in the near future?
We’re focusing a lot on continuing to expand partnerships on both the human and pet side. We’ve been doing more B2B partnerships with veterinarians and groomers, like we just got published in Groomer to Groomer magazine last month (Click on “Planning ahead for pet loss): http://www.groomertogroomer.com/full_issues/june-2017-issue/
We also got our first funeral home partner in the UK, one that won the “Good Funeral Award” among homes throughout the country two years in a row: http://www.anaturalundertaking.co.uk/
It’s always fun to work with folks abroad and compare laws, cultures.
Some of our yet unanswered questions which we’ll state for you to ponder and possibly will be answered in a sequel:
As founder of Coeio and artist, how do you consider alternative (preservative) and arguably polar opposite methods like; cryonics, mummification diamonds synthesized from cremated remains?
Have you overcome your fear of death through this project and can you tell us about it?
Can you give us examples of your experience with feedback and partnership of the major world religions/ philosophies and this product/ concept?