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'Ninja pajamas' or 'mushroom death suit'?

updated 12:52 PM EST, Sun November 20, 2011
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Artist Jae Rhim Lee is developing an environmentally sustainable burial method
  • She says human body contains toxins that pollute the environment after death
  • Lee says a burial suit embedded with mushroom spores would speed decomposition
  • She sees the process as a way of accepting death and our connection to the planet

Editor's note: TED is a nonprofit dedicated to "Ideas worth spreading" which it makes available through talks posted on its website.

(CNN) -- Artist Jae Rhim Lee walked on stage at the TED Global conference in July wearing a body-hugging black and white suit she jokingly called "ninja pajamas." She realized the subject she wanted to talk about was unusual: "All right, so for some of you, this may be really, really out there," she told the audience in Edinburgh, UK.

When people laughed, she added, "Just a little."

In reality, her Infinity Burial Project is not a laughing matter. The "ninja pajamas" are intended to serve as a "mushroom death suit," a medium embedded with mushroom spores that would speed the decomposition of the human body after death.

An interview with Jae Rhim Lee

Lee's project starts with the observation that the human body harbors toxic chemicals that could contribute to pollution through burial or cremation. She points out that a study found the chemical Bisphenol A in 93% of people aged six and older. The CDC tracks 219 environmental chemicals in human bodies, including, she said, "preservatives, pesticides and heavy metals like lead and mercury."

The lessons? One is "don't become a cannibal." More seriously, she said, burial can spread toxins present in the body, and can further harm the environment through cosmetics and other chemicals used to prepare corpses for funerals. "Green or natural burials, which don't use embalming, are a step in the right direction, but they don't address the existing toxins in our bodies," she said. "I think there's a better solution."

TED.com: Six ways mushrooms can save the world

Lee, a 2011 TED Global Fellow, studied at MIT and Wellesley College, and her work has been exhibited in the U.S. and Europe. Before taking on the burial project, she led the MIT FEMA Trailer Project, which studied the trailers used by the federal disaster agency in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Her team turned a surplus FEMA trailer, which they dubbed the Armadillo, into an environmental demonstration project for composting, water recycling and other "green" activities.

TED.com: Michael Pollan gives a plant's-eye view

Lee is experimenting with collecting her own hair, skin and nails and using them to help feed a variety of edible mushrooms. "As the mushrooms grow, I pick the best feeders to become Infinity Mushrooms. It's a kind of imprinting and selective breeding process for the afterlife. So when I die, the Infinity Mushrooms will recognize my body and be able to eat it."

"I realize this is not the kind of relationship that we usually aspire to have with our food," Lee said. "We want to eat, not be eaten by, our food. But as I watch the mushrooms grow and digest my body, I imagine the Infinity Mushroom as a symbol of a new way of thinking about death and the relationship between my body and the environment. ...

"It's a step towards accepting the fact that someday I will die and decay. It's also a step towards taking responsibility for my own burden on the planet. ...

"And the saying goes, we came from dust and will return to dust. And once we understand that we're connected to the environment, we see that the survival of our species depends on the survival of the planet."

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