In the US, there are basically two options for what to do with a corpse: put it in a nice outfit and place it in a casket, or torch it to an ashy powder in cremation.
For visual designer Jae Rhim Lee, these archaic options are what need to be put to rest.
"Death is the most universal event in our lives, and yet the funeral industry and all the products around it and all the services around it are not centered around a human-centered process," Lee told Motherboard.
With the growth in environmental consciousness in mainstream America, Lee saw an opportunity to add a cheap and ecologically-friendly burial process. Dubbed the "Infinity Burial Suit," it's an organic cotton jumpsuit embedded with bacteria and a special breed of "Infinity Mushrooms" that detoxify and decompose the buried organic material.
After presenting her idea at a 2011 Ted Talk, Lee met Mike Ma, with whom she founded the startup Coeio to manufacture and distribute these Infinity Burial Suits. Now, almost five years since her presentation, the company is in the beginning of its beta testing, with the hope that it can go beyond the suit to empower individuals planning their own funerals.
"I realized that a certain amount of the cultural shift needed to precede the commercialization of the suit, and that no matter how we marketed the suit, that the culture was not ready for it," Lee said, explainingwhy it has taken around half a decade to begin the suit's beta testing. "We had to do some community work on how we engaged people, and that had to be a human-centered one."
Over the past few years, consumers drank the kale-infused Kool-Aid of environmental consciousness with juice cleanses, driving hybrid cars, and even non-traditional and environmentally beneficial funerary practices. In the most recent survey on green burials, funeral industry researchers Kates-Boylston Publications found that in 2008, 43 percent of respondents would consider having an eco-friendly burial.
The startup's website even promises death suits for pets
Despite our consumer patterns shifting toward eco-friendly choices, the Infinity Burial Suit has to overcome America's predilection for death denial. Psychologists have noted our insecurities about death. The common practice of embalming combined with a casket funeral preserves the corpse, the opposite of what Lee's suit aims to do.
Mississippi resident Merritt Lee Herring lost her husband Morris in 2007. She benefits emotionally from the casket's sense of permanency, she said.
"Occasionally, I go see Morris," Herring told Motherboard. "I go make sure his flowers still look good, his stone… I like to know that he is physically there. Like if I want to go talk to him or see him, that I know I can go to a place and see him."
But there are at least some who favor the idea of an eco-friendly funeral. After stumbling upon Lee's Ted Talk in this past January, Dennis White, a Woburn, Massachusetts resident who was diagnosed with Primary Progressive Aphasia—a neurological syndrome whereby language capabilities slowly become impaired—reached out to Lee to volunteer his body for Coeio's beta program.
"It's the right thing to do," White said via email regarding his rationale behind the Infinity Burial Suit. "All those chemicals end up in the ground. Currently the Funeral Industry, could do so much better with green burials, but they don't know how."
Together with director Grace Lee, Coeio produced a documentary following White's preparation for his Infinity Burial, which was released this past November to the project's Kickstarter campaign donors. The documentary follows White through the process of planning a green burial, from choosing a plot of land to being fitted for his own suit.
Coeio is opening up the beta testing of the suit in January, with 15 subjects ranging all the from early ages to those like White facing the end of life. The startup's website even promises death suits for pets. But Lee and Ma are looking beyond just the suit in the hopes of building a network surrounding funerary practices.
"We're interested in seeing if our product builds a community around planning your funeral," Ma said. He added that given the response to the Ted Talk and over subscription to the beta program, he believes "we're on to something. The suit is the prompt of the journey for people to take control of their funeral."
There's no guarantee that Coeio's take on the green burial movement will reach a mainstream audience, or even incubate these niche funerary communities. Still, Lee and Ma are confident in the progress of their work and the shifting attitudes within society itself.
"It may have implications beyond just their death," Ma said over the phone, in reference to the act of planning one's funeral. "When you take control of your death, you're in a much better position to take control of your life."