Our final departure from life does not have to be a somber farewell to the world we leave behind. Instead, we can return back to the earth as a final gift to the planet that cradled us in and out of existence, completing the cycle of life. Mushroom-based coffins made from mycelium have recently hit the market as a new option for those looking to undergo a more natural burial for themselves or their loved ones.
These new coffins provide a more ecologically conscious approach compared to traditional funeral methods, free from chemicals and unsustainable materials. Mycelium coffins demonstrate a significant shift in how we think about death and decomposition. This method recycles the human body back into the earth without such a negative carbon footprint so that our final departure becomes a nurturing act of reintegration with the natural world.
The environmental impact of our chosen farewell methods is increasingly being considered as more people become aware of sustainability issues. In recent years, the funeral industry has faced growing scrutiny due to ecological implications.
Traditional burials use caskets or coffins made from wood, metal, and fiberglass. Each of these materials carries its own concerns. These funerary vessels can take several decades if not more, to decompose back into the earth and often leech harmful compounds and chemicals into the soil. In the U.S. alone, 115 million tons of steel and 4 million acres of trees are deforested annually to create caskets.
Burial methods also include the use of embalming fluid to preserve the body, often including formaldehyde, a highly toxic volatile organic compound (VOC) that can seep into water sources and negatively impact the surrounding soil. Each year, over 800,000 gallons of formaldehyde are used, posing a risk to the health of funeral workers and the surrounding environments of cemeteries.
Cremation has been seen as a more eco-friendly alternative to traditional burial, but even this method has its downfalls. Although cremation is not as environmentally harmful as full-service burials, most crematoriums must burn natural gas, releasing greenhouse gasses for around 45 to 90 minutes, as this is how long it takes to fully incinerate a body. Cremations in the United States produce around 360,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide yearly. Cremation also emits several other atmospheric pollutants, including carbon monoxide, mercury, sulfur dioxide, particulate matter, heavy metals, and more.
In response to these concerns, there has been a growing interest in more sustainable alternatives. The green burial movement advocates for more environmentally friendly funeral practices to better support the ongoing crisis. One solution — the Living Cocoon — a biodegradable coffin made from mycelium, the root structure of mushrooms, represents a remarkable innovation in this field.
Mycelium has been used for a wide variety of purposes, from construction materials to clothing. Despite its durable nature, mycelium is biodegradable due to its makeup of all-natural materials.
As a result, the Living Cocoon is capable of biodegrading in just 45 days, which is substantially faster than traditional burial vessels. Because of this rapid decomposition, human remains can naturally reintegrate into the earth. The Living Cocoon also addresses concerns regarding space and land use associated with traditional burials. Cemeteries across the world occupy extensive amounts of land.
Major cities are facing struggles with depleting burial spaces and are expected to run out of usable plots within the next few decades. Since the Living Cocoon accelerates decomposition time, it presents a viable solution to this problem by enabling a quicker turnover of burial plots, thus alleviating the pressure on cemetery land use.
The process of creating mycelium coffins is relatively simple and requires minimal resources. The mycelium from specially selected fungi is mixed with upcycled hemp fiber and placed inside a mold. As the mycelium feeds on the organic waste, it spreads its root system and establishes itself as a sturdy structure in only seven days. The inside of the coffin is then lined with moss, further enhancing its natural appeal.
From there, each Living Cocoon is thoroughly tested for quality and strength. They are capable of carrying up to 440 pounds while weighing only 66 pounds. In contrast, a traditional coffin weighs anywhere between 160 to 220 pounds, depending on the material.
Mycelium composites are usually heated after forming in order to further solidify the structure. However, in this process, the mycelial organism is killed. According to WIRED, the creators of the Living Cocoon decided to go against traditional mycelium production methods to allow the coffin to remain a living product.
Although this process made production more difficult, the team finally found a way to dry the mycelium slowly at low heat to place it in a state of dormancy. The end result was a vessel that is technically still alive but inactive until it is reintroduced to an environment with more moisture. Once the coffin is buried and in more suitable conditions, the mycelium reactivates and helps with the process of decomposition.
The idea for the Living Cocoon began in 2019, when Bob Hendrikx, a researcher at the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, showcased his concept of inhabitable pods made from mycelium during Dutch Design Week. Speaking to Dezeen, Hendrikx recounted an interaction that proved to be a turning point: “A girl walked up to me and asked, ‘What if my grandma dies? Can I just leave her there?’,” he said. This simple yet profound question led Hendrikx to explore how we could return our loved ones to the earth in a respectful and environmentally conscious manner, leading to the creation of the Living Cocoon.
In 2020 Bob Hendrikx and Lonneke Westhoff founded the Dutch startup Loop Biotech in collaboration with New York-based mycelium innovators, Ecovative Design. Together, with the expertise in mycelium technology with a shared vision for sustainable funeral practices, the team was able to produce the world’s first living coffins made from mycelium.
“Mushrooms are known as the world’s largest recycler, turning dead organic matter into new plant life,” Hendrikx remarks. “Why are we not using this?”
The launch of the Living Cocoon was not only a breakthough in sustainable product design but also a statement against the environmental impact of traditional burials. Mycelium coffins challenge the idea of death as an ending, pushing toward the understanding that it’s only a continuation of the natural cycle of life.
Hendrikx firmly believes that “When we die … we should be adding value instead of another footprint.” As the green burial movement gains traction, products like the Living Cocoon offer a way to honor our loved ones in their final act of ecologic contribution.
Apart from coffins, Loop also offers an urn called the EarthRise, which can be used as a one-of-a-kind ornament at home or as a planter pod to provide life for a plant of choice.
The Loop Living Cocoon is currently out on the market and widely available all across Europe. The company is also willing to ship to those outside of the continent. It is priced at around $1,530, a fraction of the cost of most standard coffins. As the Living Cocoon becomes more popularized, it may become a more widespread option for those seeking a meaningful and sustainable approach to burial practices.