Biodegradable Coffin Hastens Decomposition, Enriches Soil of Plot

"living cocoon" made of fungi, microbes, plant roots

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

A new coffin is made of fungi for those seeking “green burials,” Vice reported. The “Living Cocoon” is biodegradable, speeds the body’s decomposition, and is already available in the Netherlands. Burial is our oldest existing rite for corpse disposal.

Grave stone
To avoid the chemicals used in mortuaries, which can leach into soil over time, the “Living Cocoon” concept for a coffin makes for a biodegradable, “green burial.” Photo By Stuart Monk / Shutterstock

According to Vice, the demand for more environmentally friendly burials has led to a surprising innovation that could change coffins as we know them. “Loop [is] a Dutch biotech company that recently unveiled a biodegradable coffin made of fungus, microbes, and plant roots,” the article said. “Called the ‘Living Cocoon,’ the coffin is designed to hasten bodily decomposition while also enriching soil around the plot.

“Developed in collaboration with Delft University of Technology and the Naturalis Biodiversity Center, the Living Cocoon contains a moss bed packed with mycelium, plant roots, and a lush ecosystem of microorganisms.”

The article said the coffin dissolves in 30 to 45 days and the body decomposes in about three years.

For disposal of a body, burial is the oldest existing rite of which we have evidence.

Gone, But Not Forgotten

“We have been ritually burying our dead from our earliest days on Earth, and the ‘we’ in this sentence includes not only Homo sapiens but our Neanderthal relatives, whose burial sites have been found in northern Iraq, Israel, and France,” said Dr. Mark Berkson, Professor of Religion at Hamline University. “The earliest burial sites of Homo sapiens date back over 100,000 years, and a large number have been found from around 40,000–50,000 years ago around the Middle East and Europe.

“There is evidence that these burials were intentional and that they were ritualized and religious. The graves contain not only human bodies, but also grave goods such as tools, animal bones, and flowers that sometimes adorned the skeleton.”

Dr. Berkson said that at one such burial site in Israel, the skeleton had been covered in red ochre—a pigment of earthy colors—and surrounded by animal bones. Additionally, some bodies have been placed in the fetal position before burial. Archaeologists believe this is evidence that prehistoric man viewed death as some kind of rebirth.

“The red would symbolize blood and the fetal position suggests the potential of new life, waiting to be born,” he said.

The Faithful Departed

Dr. Berkson noted that burial has always been the preferred method of disposing of a body for the Abrahamic religions. He said that in keeping with the view of God’s creation of Adam from dust, burying the dead is at least a symbolic way of returning the body to the dust from which it was originally created.

“Around the beginning of the Common Era in the Mediterranean, dead bodies were often wrapped in shrouds and buried in caves, as was done with Jesus’s body after his crucifixion,” he said. “In the Middle Ages in Europe, bodies were often buried inside the local church, although this could create a problem with odors emanating from beneath the floor.

“Over time, the practice of burying bodies in cemeteries near the church became popular, and the notion developed that there should be a demarcation between the places occupied by the living and those of the dead.”

Overcrowding of church-adjacent cemeteries led to the creation of large garden cemeteries with flowers, trees, and monuments, which were first advocated by Queen Victoria in the mid-19th century. This led to the more pleasant, and even beautiful, burial grounds we know of today.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily

Dr. Berkson is Professor of Religion at Hamline University. He earned a B.A. from Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs

Dr. Mark Berkson contributed to this article. Dr. Berkson is Professor of Religion at Hamline University. He earned a BA from Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, an MA from Stanford University in East Asian Studies, and a PhD from Stanford University in Religious Studies and Humanities.