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Fungus and burial: a match made in eco-heaven


Fungus and burial: a match made in eco-heaven

Design Indaba speaker gives food for thought on what we should do with our bodies after we die

Senior science reporter

Shaina Garfield, an American speaker at the Design Indaba currently on in Cape Town, has given us new ways to think of death – and how going the fungal route could be the best gift we could give to Earth.
Four years ago, Garfield was diagnosed with Chronic Lyme Disease, a milestone in her life which she says put her in touch with her own mortality.
Thus began a journey of exploring the human psyche, its impact on climate change through our actions, and how this plays out in life and death.
She went in search of a way of making death more meaningful to Earth and to life, rather than being yet another pollutant that messes with the balance.
From there, she came up with the concept of Leaves.
This, she explains, is a burial practice that “allows us to acknowledge the transformation from death into new life”.
Made with biodegradable materials, the coffin’s rope has a dye embedded with spores.
Once the body is buried, fungus grows to speed up the decomposition.
“Most importantly, the fungus eats the plethora of toxins in our bodies so only nutrients go into the soil. A tree is then planted above the burial site, becoming a beacon of new life,” she explains.
“I realised that at the heart of it all is human exceptionalism,” she says, “and that is the way in which we separate ourselves from nature and try to control it.”
She says that all other species decay and “return to earth”, yet we as a species are “afraid of death and mortality” and “try to do the opposite”.
Some of our practices, such as embalming, are there to “preserve the body”, which is simply our attempt to “remain stuck in our domestic dream”, says Garfield.
The idea with Leaves is that fungus is encouraged to grow on the body so that it “speeds up” the decomposition process.
“This means we can positively impact on Earth after we die,” she says, adding that one year later is a suitable time to plant a tree over the burial.
In Western culture, “death is perceived as a taboo, and therefore mourners have limited participation in the funeral process”, but in many other cultures around the world “family and friends are extremely involved in the funeral allowing for more healing and acceptance”.
Garfield is part of a growing community worldwide that sees the way we currently dispose of our dead as being eco-unfriendly and, in many ways, absurd.
In SA, a big advocate for alternative ways of seeing burial is Lucienne Kelfkens who, a few years ago, finished her doctorate at UCT on the subject.
Her project began when she discovered that we are “running out of space” for burials. Also, cemeteries are “ugly spaces that aren’t maintained anymore”.
Kelfkens says we place our dead in “sacred” spaces and after the first year more than 50% of people never return.
“The whole concept of a public cemetery should be far more integrated,” she says. “We create these graves which take up so much space, but then nobody visits or maintains them properly. All the dead relatives are abandoned.”
Kelfkens says we are short of beautiful spaces for recreation for the living, and land is in short supply. So why keep them separate, and why prioritise the bodies of the deceased over the lives of the living?

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