Funeral industry innovation: Urns made of dormant mushroom mycelium

A mushroom urn is a more environmentally friendly alternative to traditional urns and coffins made of such materials as dolomite, marble, wood or plywood.
A mushroom urn is a more environmentally friendly alternative to traditional urns and coffins made of such materials as dolomite, marble, wood or plywood. Source: AP/Scanpix

Even in the traditionally conservative funeral business, new solutions are possible. A researcher at the Estonian University of Life Sciences (Estonian: Eesti Maaülikool, EMÜ) has developed an urn made of mushrooms. When a person is buried in one, they will eventually become one with the soil.

A mushroom urn is a more environmentally friendly alternative to traditional urns and coffins made of such materials as dolomite, marble, wood or plywood.

Two years ago, Maidu Silm won the Estonian University of Life Sciences "Tarkav idu" student startup competition with his innovative concept for a robust, malleable mushroom-made material that regenerates when exposed to water.

Jüri Lehtsaar, a senior research fellow in economic analysis and accounting and the competition's organizer, introduced the young researcher to CEO of Tartu Crematorium Andres Tõnissoo, starting a productive relationship.

It all begins with a tiny bit of tissue

Maidu Silm, currently a junior researcher at EMÜ, says the creation of the urn begins with a tiny bit of mushroom tissue that must be kept and cultivated in sterile conditions until the shape of an urn is established.

Tissues are successively propagated on organic material, typically sawdust, with natural components added to the media to stimulate fungal growth.

"Imagine mushroom mycelium naturally germinating on decomposing forest leaves. However, we are only allowing one type of fungus to develop, which acquires a lovely shape from its forming material, sawdust," explained Silm.

Although typical forest mushrooms are the first to come to mind, these cannot be used to make urns. "In order to create an urn from mushrooms or fungi specific species are needed," Silm said. The researchers are investigating specific cluster-forming, wood-decomposing species. 

The young researcher explained that developing the basic framework was the most challenging part of the entire process. Mushrooms could be grown in any shape or form, but extracting them from the mold is difficult due to the fungus' propensity to grow in all directions, including through tiny fissures that tend to hold the shape to the mold.

Creating a mold is comparable to pouring concrete, Silm continued. "After the concrete is poured into the mold, it will harden in two days and can be then removed. It takes about a month for the mushroom to mature. The mushroom cyst is then removed and dried, after which it becomes dormant."

Also, there are no spores or fruiting bodies in a mushroom urn, thus it poses no danger to nearby homes or property.

Each urn is one-of-a-kind because the mycelium always grows just how it thinks it should. It creates spots in one location or another. A great deal also depends on the size of the original material.

A mushroom-made biodegradable urn at the Tartu Krematoorium and funeral bureau. Source: Private archive

"It is impossible for two urns to be similar due to the numerous variables that impact the final outcome. You can approach resemblance, but each urn is always distinguishable in some way. Clearly, beauty is subjective, but mushroom urns are truly one-of-a-kind," Silm said.

The team's objective is to give an environmentally friendly option for the funeral industry. "Everything comes from nature, and returns to nature. If you wish to leave as little a carbon imprint as possible when you depart, then mushroom spawn is certainly a good way to do it, as it is both ecological and biodegradable," Silm explained.

Traditions endure

Even though it may appear to be a conservative field, innovative ideas have previously transformed the funeral industry. In Tallinn's Parnamae cemetery, for instance, the first crematorium in the Baltic States was erected in 1993, altering centuries-old burial practices.

The world is changing, many areas are changing rapidly, and even funeral practices are seeing some change, Tõnissoo explained. "When the option became available and individuals could choose cremation over burial, it was a revolution in the funeral industry."

"However, traditions endure and should endure because they provide people with a sense of security," Tõnissoo added.

Regardless of its ecological footprint it is important that the urn be aesthetically pleasing, have the appropriate volume, be sealable and, if desired, have a lengthy shelf life.

In addition, urns are occasionally buried in the sea and should thus be allowed to stay on the surface of the water for a time before sinking, or they are buried in the garden, which should all be done without harming the environment.

Silm explained that his fungal urn only comes to life after prolonged exposure to moisture. In dormant state, the urn's hydrophobic surface repels small amounts of water, allowing it to be displayed on a mantelpiece, for example. However, prolonged contact with water disrupts the organism's dormancy, it begins to absorb more water and live.

Now that the production process for mushroom urns has been developed and a greater range of molds has been created, manufacturing on a larger scale can begin.

Silm expects to begin selling molds later this year, with a sample already on display at the Tartu Crematory.

While the same method could be used to build a coffin, the team will initially focus only on urn production, allowing time to decide whether manufacturing of larger items, such as coffins, is feasible.

Maidu Silm has developed the process for manufacturing urns in collaboration with Andres Tõnissoo. Rihard Reissaar and Anu Kisand of the Estonian University of Applied Sciences also have contributed to the concept's development.


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Editor: Kristina Kersa

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