The man who grows coffins

By Mattie Lennon

Please do this to me when I die…I’d like to become a persimmon tree….what about you? ……..with a surprise guest trumpeter……….. (Words of Bury me in my garden, written and recorded by Samara Jade. The moment I heard it I started to make a few enquiries about home burials.)

One of my researchers contacted every local authority in Ireland and it would appear that Leitrim County Council is the only one to have refused permission for a home burial.

Vincent Dwyer gave a valid reason, for refusals, to the researcher: “…The soils in County Leitrim are classified as ‘Gleys’ and are characteristically impermeable, with a persistent high water table. These properties are incompatible with the soil type and minimum groundwater protection requirements specifically required by best practice guidelines for burial grounds. These limiting factors are also the reason that any previous proposal for burial on private lands has been refused by Leitrim County Council.”

According to experts very few other places in Ireland have a geological similarity to Leitrim. So, unless you live-or die in the county with the shortest coastline, there’s a good chance you’ll get the necessary planning permission. Like the cost of living the cost of dying varies greatly from place to place.

It would appear that planning fees for such a project are not standard.  According to Michelle Keating of Meath County Council a planning application for home burial would “…come under Class 12 which would be €200 or €50 for each hectare of site area”.  While the planning fee in Kerry would be €80.

Speaking of which – when researching this piece a Munster resident who is applying to their local authority, for permission to be buried in their garden, put me in touch with a Dutch firm which has created a biodegradable “living coffin” made of a fungus instead of wood that it says can convert a decomposing human body into key nutrients for plants.

Loop Company says its casket is made of mycelium, the underground root structure of mushrooms, and filled with a bed of moss to stimulate decomposition. “Mycelium is nature’s biggest recycler,” Bob Hendrikx, creator of the living coffin says. “It’s continuously looking for food and transforming it into plant nutrition. It’s used in Chernobyl to clean up the soil there from the nuclear disaster,” Hendrikx said.

The coffin is grown like a plant within the space of a week at the company’s lab at Delft University of Technology by mixing mycelium with wood chips in the mould of a coffin. Mycelium also devours toxins and turns them into nutrients. And the same thing happens in burial places.

Bob Hendrikx with some of his Living Coffin.

After the mycelium has grown through the wood chips, the coffin is dried and has enough strength to carry a weight of up to 200 kilograms. I had a long phone conversation with Bob Hendrikx, inventor, architect and bio designer who strives to restore the parasitic relationship between humanity and its environment by exploring a living world. He believes in a world in which we work together with nature.

A world in which our everyday objects become alive. Imagine living homes, self-healing T-shirts and bioluminescent streetlights. Bob was chosen as ‘human of the year 2020’ by Vice Media. (A Vice Media spokesperson gave a poetic description of the process used by Bob, “It starts out white and wispy – somewhere between cobweb and cotton candy. But it starts to look more like styrofoam, or even leather, once it’s dried and treated.”)

His ambition is to empower and inspire people towards a living future by turning science fiction into reality. He is no stranger to Ireland. He even likes our weather. Perhaps it makes him feel at home! And he loves the Ring of Kerry. Space doesn’t allow me to even touch on his many achievements in his chosen field but you can find more on The availability of the Living Coffin should prompt local authorities to be more accommodating with permission for home burials. Even in Leitrim.

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