By Allison Lucht & Will Broussard
A rising culinary staple, a muse in art and fashion, a nutritious, protein-rich meat replacement, and quite possibly our future companions in outer space; mushrooms have gained quite the reputation over the past half century. Fungi have come to enhance nearly every part of our living world, but an often overlooked and somewhat taboo attribute of their existence is the vital role they play in our death, and dying process.
Mushrooms interact with human death in a few ways: many can be the cause of death if ingested, and certain psychedelic varieties have been shown to help overcome end of life anxiety. Additionally, and quite literally, fungi help to decompose your body after your physical death, enriching the environment and making way for new life in the process. The relationship between mushrooms and death may make some apprehensive, but it’s a fascinating and critical part of the circle of life on Earth and its countless, diverse ecosystems.
A Brief History of Poisonous Mushrooms
I’m sure you were warned when you were a child not to eat mushrooms growing in your backyard. You may have even heard stories of those who’ve died after mistakenly eating one they believed to be safe and edible, such as a false morel. We know from visiting the produce section at the grocery store that there are plenty of tasty, non-toxic mushrooms so this may make you wonder, how did ancient people figure out which mushrooms were deadly, and which were safe and delicious?
Though no one knows for sure, there are theories, including simple trial and error and watching how wildlife respond following ingestion. Typically risk averse, humans may be more likely to try new substances in times of scarcity, such as during a famine, though observing animal behavior may be much safer. If a wild boar ate a mushroom and survived, that was a sign it was likely safe to eat. Knowledge of edible, poisonous, and even hallucinogenic substances was passed on through generational knowledge. We’ve come to understand that while poisonous mushrooms aren’t edible, that doesn’t mean they can’t be useful.
Such was the case with the supposed murder of Roman Emperor Claudius in 54 AD. Numerous scholars suggest that Claudius was fed poisonous mushrooms, and the murderer is believed to be his fourth wife Agrippina, whose motive was to clear the way for her son Nero to take the throne. Claudius suffered extreme abdominal pain, vomiting, diarrhea, excessive salivation, low blood pressure, and difficulty breathing before ultimately dying 12 hours later. Scholars disagree on the exact species used to poison Claudius, suggesting Amanita muscaria, A. pantherina or even the Inky Cap Coprimus atramentarius, which in combination with alcohol would have caused nausea, vomiting and other symptoms.
Though variably psychoactive, history suggests that the Fly Agaric (Amanita muscaria), found worldwide throughout the northern hemisphere with its infamous red and white complexion, was consumed by Vikings to make them go “berserk” during a raid. Some speculate that many Anglo-Saxons developed their legendary mycophobia, or a fear of mushrooms, after witnessing Viking berserkers. Another source of European mistrust of fungi may be ergotism, a disease caused by the ergot fungus which affects rye and other cereals common in the middle ages throughout Europe and colonial North America, leading to multiple epidemics and the deaths of thousands of people.
Learning about deadly mushrooms’ role in history may make you develop a mild mycophobia but there’s little need to worry: it is estimated that about 3% of the world’s mushroom-producing fungi, or about 60 species out of 10,000, are poisonous to humans.
Fungi are found all over the world in a wide variety of habitats. As natural decomposers, they play a crucial role in ecosystem services and have the natural ability to find and break down organic matter. In the process, they can convert pollutants such as pesticides, heavy metals, and plastic into non-toxic compounds. This includes toxins found in human remains.
Throughout our life span, our bodies collect hundreds of pollutants from our environment. When we die, those pollutants then return to the earth, continuing the cycle of toxicity. The process of cremation actually releases all these toxins into the atmosphere, and traditional casket funerals contribute even more toxins to the environment through the embalming and preservative process. To make funerals more environmentally friendly, some innovators have turned to mushroom burials. Artist Jae Rhim Lee and Biodesigner Bob Hendrikx are leading the mushroom burial movement with their individual inventions.
Jae Rhim Lee took the internet by storm following the unveiling of her mushroom burial suit during her TED Talk in 2011. The suit, which is called the Infinity Burial Suit, is made from biodegradable materials lined with mycelium and other microorganisms. While Lee claims that the fungi selected for this suit are “specially trained” to break down human remains more effectively while neutralizing toxins, Bob Hendrikx has a different take on the mushroom burial process. His team at Loop created the first “Living Coffin” made from mycelium. Like the Infinity Burial Suit, the Loop Cocoon harnesses the power of fungi to accelerate the decomposition of human remains, neutralize toxins, and replenish the environment.
Some may speculate that using mushrooms to decompose bodies may create fungal pathogens. Hendrikx isn’t concerned about this happening since mushrooms naturally seek out and decompose organic material. He says, “Mushrooms above all accelerate the decomposition rate. People can go out into the forest and find mushrooms and grow their own coffin." Hendrikx goes on to say that they hope to help people grow their own mushroom coffins in the future.
The Loop Cocoon is made from king trumpet mushroom mycelium. Hendrikx and his team chose these mushrooms because they have a cosmopolitan distribution, meaning they can be found all over the world, and are generally non-invasive. Though the Loop Cocoon is made from living organisms, they cannot be shipped worldwide. Currently deliveries are limited to the Netherlands, their home country, as well as Germany and Belgium. They plan to open more locations in order to develop regional Loop Cocoons that may utilize local mushrooms.
Often in our society, people are uncomfortable with the thought of death. Hendrikx doesn’t think we should be and believes that mushrooms may help us find peace with death. “It’s definitely a hopeful story,” he says. “Your alternatives are, we put you in a fire or we put you in the ground and you’ll be there for 20 years before you fully decompose." Alternatively, the Loop Cocoon reduces decomposition time to just two to three years. Hendrikx goes on to say that some may find comfort with death when they realize mushroom burials will help them live on by helping new life flourish.
“We are alive and then we die. It’s a common thing.” he says, “I think in our society death is not really there or not really allowed anymore. I think that’s a pity because if you step away from death, you don’t really live then. If you’re close to death, then you really know you’re alive.”
Around 148,000 species of fungi have been described by science as of 2020, with a 2017 estimate suggesting there may be between 2.2 and 3.8 million species. Numerous species provide key benefits to our environment and our health; decomposing organic matter to create rich soil, producing antibiotics, and providing essential nutrients and antioxidants to our diet. At the same time, fungi have a dark side as well, with roughly six hundred species of pathogenic fungi known to cause disease in humans, plants, and animals.
Fungi are considered saprotrophs, meaning they feed on decaying organic matter. That being said, ingesting the spores of some types of fungi can be damaging to human health. We come into contact with fungal spores all the time, and most cause a mild infection or no infection at all. A few types can cause infection in people with immunodeficiencies such as cancer patients, organ transplant patients, HIV patients, diabetics, and people on long-term antibiotics. Most fungal infections heal on their own or do so with the aid of antifungal medication. In severe cases, they can spread throughout the body or central nervous system, causing meningitis.
Fungal pathogens that affect humans can be broken up into three categories:
- Opportunistic Pathogens
- Environmental Reservoirs
Opportunistic fungal pathogens are found in almost every healthy human. They don’t normally cause infection, but they can if you have an immunodeficiency.
You’re probably familiar with two common types of opportunistic fungal pathogens which are Candida albicans (Candidiasis) and Pneumocystis jiroveci (pneumocystic pneumonia). Candida is responsible for yeast infections of the vagina (vaginal yeast infection) and mouth (thrush). Candida fungal infections can be uncomfortable, but rarely deadly.
Pneumocystis jiroveci is a more serious type of opportunistic fungal pathogen. Adults with healthy immune systems may carry this fungal pathogen without any symptoms but those with compromised immune systems may develop a lung infection called pneumocystic pneumonia which can be fatal.
Environmental reservoirs are any plants, soil, water, and air that harbor fungal pathogens. They’re usually contracted by disturbing the environment, such as digging soil or breathing air that’s carrying fungal pathogens.
Histoplasma capsulatum (histoplasmosis) and Coccidioides immitis (coccidioidomycosis) are two types of fungal pathogens that come from environmental reservoirs. Histoplasmosis is contracted through bird or rat droppings. Coccidioidomycosis, or valley fever, is contracted through dry soil. Both of these fungal pathogens primarily affect the lungs but can spread to other areas of the body.
Dermatophytes cause fungal infections in hair, skin, and nails. These types of infections usually aren’t serious, but they can be uncomfortable. Common fungal infections caused by dermatophytes are athlete’s foot (Tinea pedis), and ringworm (Tinea corporis).
Scientists hypothesize that new fungal infections may be on the rise in years to come due to climate change. As Earth’s temperature rises, fungi adapt to survive in warmer environments, theoretically making it easier for them to survive inside of humans and other mammals. This was first observed 12 years ago after the first outbreak of Candida auris. Since then, it has caused hundreds of deadly outbreaks, including during the COVID-19 pandemic. Emerging fungal pathogens pose a serious threat since they’re more likely to be resistant to existing antifungal compounds.
Psilocybin Mushrooms and Death Anxiety
As stated above, numerous poisonous mushrooms and fungal pathogens can cause death, and many types of fungi can break down your body after death. But there are also some types of mushrooms that can help you develop a healthier relationship with death. I’m talking of course about psilocybin, the active ingredient in hallucinogenic, or magic mushrooms.
Dr. Albert Garcia-Romeu, a professor from Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research says they’ve found lasting benefits from treating distressed cancer patients with psilocybin. They’ve witnessed a reduction in depression and death-related anxiety that often lasts for six months or longer after a single dose of psilocybin.
Data is reflected in one of Johns Hopkins' many published psilocybin studies. The effects of psilocybin mushrooms were studied in terminal cancer patients who were experiencing depression and anxiety. 80% of participants had a significant decrease in depressed mood and death anxiety. They also reported that they felt an increase in optimism, life meaning, and quality of life. What’s more, is that these effects were long-lasting. Six months later, 80% of participants sustained reduced symptoms of depression and anxiety. Simultaneously, feelings of optimism and overall quality of life increased.
In a similar study, 60-80% of psilocybin patients found continued relief from depression, hopelessness, and death anxiety up to three and four years later. What’s even more astounding is the spiritual significance of psilocybin therapy. These same patients rated the experience while undergoing psilocybin therapy as “among the most personally meaningful and spiritually significant experiences of their lives.”
Deadly Mushrooms and The Cycle of Life
Death can be uncomfortable to think about, but it’s an unavoidable part of life. The relationship between mushrooms and death is complex, to say the least but it’s a relationship that’s vital to the survival of our species and global ecosystem. Without mushrooms, our environment would be too toxic to support new life, and with new developments in funeral technology, mushrooms may be the key to creating a healthier environment for future generations.
It’s normal to feel uneasy about death. But for some, the fear of death is consuming to the point where they can’t enjoy their lives. With the help of mushrooms, many will be able to overcome their death anxiety. So they can begin living their lives to the fullest.
Do deadly mushrooms creep you out? Or do you find them fascinating? Let us know in the comments below.