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TEDGlobal 2011

Jae Rhim Lee: My mushroom burial suit

July 14, 2011

Here's a powerful provocation from artist Jae Rhim Lee. Can we commit our bodies to a cleaner, greener Earth, even after death? Naturally -- using a special burial suit seeded with pollution-gobbling mushrooms. Yes, this just might be the strangest TEDTalk you'll ever see ...

Jae Rhim Lee - Artist
Artist and TED Fellow Jae Rhim Lee re-imagines the relationships between the body and the world. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
So I'm here to explain
00:15
why I'm wearing these ninja pajamas.
00:17
And to do that, I'd like to talk first
00:19
about environmental toxins in our bodies.
00:21
So some of you may know
00:24
about the chemical Bisphenol A, BPA.
00:26
It's a material hardener and synthetic estrogen
00:28
that's found in the lining of canned foods
00:31
and some plastics.
00:33
So BPA mimics the body's own hormones
00:35
and causes neurological and reproductive problems.
00:38
And it's everywhere.
00:41
A recent study found BPA
00:43
in 93 percent of people six and older.
00:45
But it's just one chemical.
00:49
The Center for Disease Control in the U.S.
00:51
says we have 219 toxic pollutants in our bodies,
00:54
and this includes preservatives, pesticides
00:58
and heavy metals like lead and mercury.
01:01
To me, this says three things.
01:04
First, don't become a cannibal.
01:06
Second, we are both responsible for and the victims of
01:10
our own pollution.
01:13
And third,
01:15
our bodies are filters and storehouses
01:17
for environmental toxins.
01:19
So what happens to all these toxins when we die?
01:22
The short answer is:
01:25
They return to the environment in one way or another,
01:27
continuing the cycle of toxicity.
01:29
But our current funeral practices
01:31
make the situation much worse.
01:33
If you're cremated,
01:35
all those toxins I mentioned are released into the atmosphere.
01:37
And this includes 5,000 pounds of mercury
01:40
from our dental fillings alone every year.
01:43
And in a traditional American funeral,
01:46
a dead body is covered with fillers and cosmetics
01:49
to make it look alive.
01:52
It's then pumped with toxic formaldehyde
01:54
to slow decomposition --
01:57
a practice which causes respiratory problems and cancer
01:59
in funeral personnel.
02:02
So by trying to preserve our dead bodies,
02:05
we deny death, poison the living
02:08
and further harm the environment.
02:11
Green or natural burials, which don't use embalming,
02:13
are a step in the right direction,
02:16
but they don't address the existing toxins in our bodies.
02:18
I think there's a better solution.
02:22
I'm an artist,
02:24
so I'd like to offer a modest proposal
02:26
at the intersection
02:28
of art, science and culture.
02:30
The Infinity Burial Project,
02:32
an alternative burial system
02:34
that uses mushrooms
02:36
to decompose and clean toxins in bodies.
02:38
The Infinity Burial Project
02:40
began a few years ago with a fantasy
02:42
to create the Infinity Mushroom --
02:44
a new hybrid mushroom
02:46
that would decompose bodies, clean the toxins
02:48
and deliver nutrients to plant roots,
02:51
leaving clean compost.
02:53
But I learned it's nearly impossible
02:55
to create a new hybrid mushroom.
02:57
I also learned
02:59
that some of our tastiest mushrooms
03:01
can clean environmental toxins in soil.
03:03
So I thought maybe I could train an army
03:05
of toxin-cleaning edible mushrooms
03:08
to eat my body.
03:11
So today, I'm collecting what I shed or slough off --
03:13
my hair, skin and nails --
03:16
and I'm feeding these to edible mushrooms.
03:19
As the mushrooms grow,
03:22
I pick the best feeders
03:24
to become Infinity Mushrooms.
03:26
It's a kind of imprinting and selective breeding process
03:28
for the afterlife.
03:31
So when I die,
03:33
the Infinity Mushrooms will recognize my body
03:35
and be able to eat it.
03:37
All right, so for some of you,
03:39
this may be really, really out there.
03:41
(Laughter)
03:43
Just a little.
03:45
I realize this is not the kind of relationship
03:47
that we usually aspire to have with our food.
03:50
We want to eat, not be eaten by, our food.
03:53
But as I watch the mushrooms grow
03:56
and digest my body,
03:58
I imagine the Infinity Mushroom
04:00
as a symbol of a new way of thinking about death
04:02
and the relationship between my body and the environment.
04:05
See for me,
04:08
cultivating the Infinity Mushroom
04:10
is more than just scientific experimentation
04:12
or gardening or raising a pet,
04:14
it's a step towards accepting the fact
04:17
that someday I will die and decay.
04:19
It's also a step
04:22
towards taking responsibility
04:24
for my own burden on the planet.
04:26
Growing a mushroom is also part of a larger practice
04:29
of cultivating decomposing organisms
04:31
called decompiculture,
04:33
a concept that was developed by an entomologist,
04:35
Timothy Myles.
04:38
The Infinity Mushroom is a subset of decompiculture
04:40
I'm calling body decompiculture and toxin remediation --
04:43
the cultivation of organisms that decompose
04:47
and clean toxins in bodies.
04:49
And now about these ninja pajamas.
04:52
Once it's completed,
04:54
I plan to integrate the Infinity Mushrooms into a number of objects.
04:56
First, a burial suit
04:59
infused with mushroom spores,
05:01
the Mushroom Death Suit.
05:03
(Laughter)
05:05
I'm wearing the second prototype
05:07
of this burial suit.
05:09
It's covered with a crocheted netting
05:11
that is embedded with mushroom spores.
05:14
The dendritic pattern you see
05:16
mimics the growth of mushroom mycelia,
05:18
which are the equivalent of plant roots.
05:21
I'm also making a decompiculture kit,
05:23
a cocktail of capsules
05:25
that contain Infinity Mushroom spores
05:27
and other elements
05:29
that speed decomposition and toxin remediation.
05:31
These capsules are embedded in a nutrient-rich jelly,
05:34
a kind of second skin,
05:37
which dissolves quickly
05:39
and becomes baby food for the growing mushrooms.
05:41
So I plan to finish the mushroom and decompiculture kit
05:44
in the next year or two,
05:47
and then I'd like to begin testing them,
05:49
first with expired meat from the market
05:52
and then with human subjects.
05:54
And believe it or not,
05:56
a few people have offered to donate their bodies to the project
05:58
to be eaten by mushrooms.
06:01
(Laughter)
06:04
What I've learned from talking to these folks
06:07
is that we share a common desire
06:09
to understand and accept death
06:11
and to minimize the impact of our death on the environment.
06:14
I wanted to cultivate this perspective
06:17
just like the mushrooms,
06:20
so I formed the Decompiculture Society,
06:22
a group of people called decompinauts
06:24
who actively explore their postmortem options,
06:27
seek death acceptance
06:30
and cultivate decomposing organisms
06:32
like the Infinity Mushroom.
06:34
The Decompiculture Society shares a vision
06:37
of a cultural shift,
06:39
from our current culture of death denial and body preservation
06:41
to one of decompiculture,
06:44
a radical acceptance of death and decomposition.
06:46
Accepting death means accepting
06:50
that we are physical beings
06:52
who are intimately connected to the environment,
06:54
as the research on environmental toxins confirms.
06:56
And the saying goes,
06:59
we came from dust and will return to dust.
07:01
And once we understand that we're connected to the environment,
07:04
we see that the survival of our species
07:07
depends on the survival of the planet.
07:09
I believe this is the beginning
07:11
of true environmental responsibility.
07:14
Thank you.
07:16
(Applause)
07:18

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Jae Rhim Lee - Artist
Artist and TED Fellow Jae Rhim Lee re-imagines the relationships between the body and the world.

Why you should listen

Jae Rhim Lee is a visual artist and mushroom lover. In her early work, as a grad student at MIT, she built systems that reworked basic human processes: sleeping (check out her it-just-might-work vertical bed from 2004), urinating and eating (and the relationship between the two). Now she's working on a compelling new plan for the final human process: decomposition.

Her Infinity Burial Project explores the choices we face after death, and how our choices reflect our denial or acceptance of death’s physical implications. She's been developing a new strain of fungus, the Infinity Mushroom, that feeds on and remediates the industrial toxins we store in our bodies and convert our unused bodies efficiently into nutrients. Her Infinity Burial System converts corpses into clean compost. She was in residence at the MAK Center in Los Angeles this fall working on the project. And if this vision of life after death appeals to you, sign up to become a Decompinaut yourself.

The original video is available on TED.com
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