Of death, shrouds, and mushrooms

Of death, shrouds, and mushrooms

A $1,500 environmentally friendly burial shroud is now available for advance purchase from Coieo, a self-described “green” company that also sells environmentally friendly pet burial pods and casket liners. The Infinity Burial Suit, made from organic cotton with wood buttons, is lined with two types of flesh-eating mushrooms that are supposed to cleanse bodily toxins while aiding the body’s decomposition.

Featured in The New York Times’ Business Section on April 23, the suit is offered as an alternative to traditional funeral practices, which Coieo’s founder, Jae Rhim Lee, a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, considers not only toxic but also complicit in a culture of death denial. These include customs designed to preserve the body, such as embalming with fluids like formaldehyde, and using caskets made from materials that do not deteriorate.

Jewish tradition has been offering a natural approach for hundreds of years — minus the mushrooms. 

The hallmarks of a Jewish burial include simple garments, known as tahrihim, and a plain pine box. (Jewish burial practices were codified in the 17th-century text Maavar Yabbok, now in the process of being translated into English under the auspices of Kavod v’Nichum, a Maryland-based organization supporting the creation of traditional Jewish burial societies and offering education on Jewish funerals, burial, and mourning.)

The concept at the heart of Jewish interment is that the body comes from the earth and returns to the earth. (The Hebrew word for man, “adam,” shares a root with the Hebrew word for earth, “adama.”) Efforts to preserve the body, like embalming, are therefore prohibited. This idea is coupled with a sense of radical equality — that we are all equal in death — that is the basis for the proscription of fancy decorations and expensive caskets.

The tahrihim consist of a top, pants, and a jacket, along with coverings for the face, hands, and feet, usually made of linen or muslin. A set of tahrihim carries a price tag of $25-$75 — a considerably less expensive environmentally friendly alternative to the Infinity Burial Suit. 

As for the mushrooms, it’s unclear that decomposition alone needs any help, or that the toxins released during the process pose a serious challenge. Consider that cemeteries would likely be regulated if they had any significant environmental impact — which is the practice for cremation, since it releases the mercury from dental work into the atmosphere. 

Kavod v’Nichum executive director David Zinner calls the mushrooms overkill. “The idea of impregnating simple and plain material with mushroom spores is interesting, but does not strike me as necessary. The body decomposes nicely on its own between the microorganisms in the body already and the microorganisms in the earth. There’s no need to come up with something special.” 

Regardless of whether the mushrooms do an important job or not, or whether or not you want to rush out and pre-order your Infinity Burial Suit, Zinner points out that all the attention it is garnering can be only for the good. “Outrageous solutions attract attention,” he said. Even if that is not always the way forward, if that makes thousands of Jews think again about tradition burial practices, that’s a good thing.

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