Mushroom suits, cryonics, and an eternity among the stars. This is Burial 2.0

Explore companies breathing new life into the industry of death

Mushroom suits, cryonics, and an eternity among the stars.       This is Burial 2.0

Life is pleasant. Death is peaceful. It's the transition that's troublesome. Isaac Asimov

(Fuse) – It was a Danish summer then. The kind tossed with mild winds and warm evenings. When heat rose but never burned. Where forest long thawed from winter now moved again with life and color. There were flowing creeks, good food, song and dance that lit the night as if it were day.

But suddenly the music stopped, and a once humming community fell to tragedy.

We know her name only as Egtved Girl, and 3,500 years would pass before the Danish heat kissed her skin once more. Excavated in 1921, this Bronze Age burial would leave its mark on the puzzled history of pre-Scandinavia.

Nordic Bronze Age tree casket of Egtved Girl
Courtesy of Robert Fortuna/The National Museum of Denmark

Only some 16 years of age at the time of her death, she was markedly well preserved. Her bones and nails, teeth, hair, and skin, all entombed in the large base of a tree trunk coffin. Buried with her came an assortment of bronze jewelry, an awl for stitching, and a large bronze belt plate posited to honor the sun as was common in Nordic Bronze Age religions. Placed at her feet lay a bucket of beer made of wheat and honey, flavored with berries and flowers of summer.

I remember first reading of the Egtved Girl in the book The Vikings by Neil Oliver. The stories of early Scandinavia, of life spreading out at the end of sword and spear, commerce moving the people of ice into positions of power and fiefdom. And yet among the pillaging and conquest, the stories of burial from high nobles to simple farmers brought the ethos of blood and power back to earth, most literally into the ground for which they so longing wished to conquer. Death, as no person need telling, is a uniter. To the Western world, its pages read of the same story retold for millennia: one of burial and cremation. But in the new age of space flight and quantum computing, will new practices of burial place a final nail in the coffin of human tradition?


To the Stars

I first encountered the idea of space funerals while researching for Burial 2.0 and quickly found myself scouring the website, flipping through the tabs of information and cross-referencing the links. Was it real? Or more likely, the passion-project of some entrepreneurial wishful or hopeful Kickstarter-backed campaign never to see the light of day.

A not so distant future will have us buried deep in the red soil of Mars or jettisoned from the sides of Starships in cosmic coffins. But today?

Nasa satellite crossing over the top of the ocean as seen from space
Credit: NASA

It turns out, Celestis Memorial Spaceflights is doing just that. Since 1994 Celestis, led by a team of aerospace professionals with advisors ranging from retired NASA astronauts to the past Director of Nasa's Kennedy Space Center, provides the dead with the ultimate final adventure.

How it works

Celestis offers four options ranging from $2,995 to $12,995 depending on the journey; surprisingly affordable given the average U.S. funeral cost is just shy of $8,000. Their Earth Rise launch takes a portion of your cremated ashes (or a portion of your DNA) into space before returning them back to earth. πŸŽ₯ You can watch a promotional here.

Other services include:

πŸŒ” Luna Service, which carries a portion of your ashes to the moon.

🌌 Voyager Service, in my opinion the most exciting, takes your ashes out beyond the moon, beyond the sun, on an "endless celestial journey."

The human spirit

"I am [..] flooded by emotions of what I see and hear, to be with you, and think of the wonderful thing you chose to do for your loved ones. They truly 'slipped the surly bonds of earth.. and touch the face of God.'"

These were the words of Jon A. McBride (NASA Astronaut) during the Celestis New Frontier Flight Memorial Service. There were many such testimonials in reading past flights, and in them, I found a reimagined portrait of death. One separated from cold ground and black clothes. A transformation and renewal of hope, a projection of life into celestial adventure. Upward, outward and beyond. In a stark difference from the solemn burial, families watched as their loved ones left earth, symbolic in itself, and met the stars. There was joy and happiness. From Japan to the UK, engineers, famous writers, veterans of various branches and countries, skydivers and adventurers, the young and the old...

All united together on one cosmic journey into the stars.

But maybe an interstellar voyage into the void isn't your thing. Don't fret. For those who say no to death entirely, there might be another option on the horizon.

The Deep Freeze

futuristic setting with robots in large cylinders in a medical facility

With only around 500 people cryonically preserved globally, you'd be inclined to believe the industry is only now gaining its footing. But cryonics - the science of preserving bodies through deep-freezing in hopes that future technology can revive them - is nothing new. In fact, it's likely first to mind when discussing the topic of "death tech." Even as a child in the early 2000s I distinctly remember the craze around the topic. But as we press into mid 2020s, there's been little said of breakthroughs in cryosleep for decades. So what happened? Has the futurist fade faded away?

Turns out, the science might be more precarious than we thought.

Search #cryosleep #cryonics or #cryopreservation and you'll find a slew of articles detailing pitfalls and hurdles. Even hopefully titled articles like this one from the Washington Post "Want to Avoid Death? Maybe Cryonics Isn't Crazy" includes quotes from Clive Cohen, a neuroscientist at the King's College London, rebuking cryonics as a "hopeless aspiration that reveals an appalling ignorance of biology.” Or here, in the MIT Technology Review article with the quote "Even if one day you could perfectly thaw a frozen human body, you would still just have a warm dead body on your hands." The list goes on.

Interestingly, the MIT article contains a remark which perfectly articulates the breadcrumb trail I've seen dotted across multiple journals and articles around the cryonics movement. A former president of the The Society for Cryobiology likened the field as closer to "fraud than either faith or science.” While fraud is too harsh in my opinion, money is certainly a factor. From the WaPo article to the MIT Review, and countless other pieces, increasing revenue seems to be the main KPI. Take the subscription based model introduced at Berlin cryonics company Tomorrow Biostasis for example, where users pay around €25 monthly (with €200,000 payable at the time of death) to preserve their body. It certainly makes the price tag of cryonics, which ranges from $20K to $200K, far greater than memorial space flights, an easier swallow.

Is there hope?

Dayong Gaom, a cryobiologist and professor at the University of Washington, points out preserving the brain’s structure does not mean preserving its functions. With absolutely no degree in biology to back up my agreeing claims, I still tend to regard this as true. It follows that the delicate neural tissue, axons and dendrites, alongside the full scope of the wonderfully delicate biological entity of consciousness that even today we understand so little of, is a major hurdle to successful implementation of cryonics. But that doesn't mean there aren't small victories.

In 2017 researchers at the University of Minnesota developed a process called "nanowarming" through which "iron oxide nanoparticles [are] dispersed throughout a cryoprotectant solution which is flushed through the organ’s blood vessels." The technique proved successful in thawing whole organs of rats while preserving structure. Over six years, this seems to be the most cited breakthrough, but there are others.

πŸͺ± This paper outlines the preservation of worm memories post cryopreservation.

🧠 This paper highlights advancements in aldehyde stabilized cryopreservation of neural tissue.

But even once tissues are perfectly preserved, we still face the problem of bringing the dead back to life.

So is there hope? Yes, but it's likely further off than we might wish. Still, for little more than the cost of Amazon Prime, maybe it's worth shilling out the money on a cryonics subscription to hedge your bets.

Finally, the Mushroom Suit

I must admit, I was excited to cover this suit. But in the spirit of full disclosure, it seems as if founder has since dissolved the parent company as the website leads straight to a 404 err0r. Fingers crossed they're undergoing a rebrand.

Background

Jae Rhim Lee, an artist in residency in California, found herself searching for what she called an "antidote" for "cultural death denial," which she described as "discomfort with aging, the growing interest in cryonics and life extension, and American funeral practices that use toxic, carcinogenic formaldehyde embalming fluid..."

Soon the avant-garde entrepreneur, after a visit to a permaculture center, found her answer in what she coined the Mushroom Death Suit.

How it works

In working with mycologist (mushroom scientists) she developed a suit incorporated with mushroom spores to eat and break down the body upon burial.

Fascinatingly, she even worked in the lab to grow specific strains of mushrooms -feeding them her own skin, hair, and nails (πŸ§Ÿβ€β™€οΈ) - hoping they would work to breakdown specific human toxins and environmental poisons.

You can watch the full TedTalk here:

The suit even garnered the attention of American actor Luke Perry.

While for now Coeio, the company behind the project is seemingly shuttered, Jae Rhim Lee's vision of green burials arguably plays a much larger role in pushing the envelope of human impact on the earth, hopefully driving innovation in a seldom changing industry.

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