Funeral industry innovation: Urns made of dormant mushroom mycelium | News

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 starts 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 form 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. The researchers are investigating specific cluster-forming, wood-decomposing species. “In order to create an urn from mushrooms or fungi specific species are needed,” Silm said.

The young researcher stated 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 then be 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 Crematorium 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 provide 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 rituals.

“When the option became available and individuals could choose cremation over burial, it was a revolution in the funeral industry,” Tõnissoo explained.

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.

When designing the urn, it is important that the urn, even regardless of its ecological origins, be aesthetically pleasing, have the appropriate volume, be sealable, and, if desired, have a long shelf life. Likewise, the urn could be thrown into the ocean or buried in the garden without harming the environment.

Silm explained that his fungal urn comes to life when exposed to moisture.
Due to the hydrophobic surface of the urn, small amounts of water have no effect on it. So that the urn can be exhibited on a mantelpiece, for example. However, prolonged contact with moisture disrupts the urn’s dormant state. The organism then absorbs water and begins to live.

The technology has been improved and mushroom urn production now utilizes a wider variety of molds. They can now be manufactured on a larger scale.

Silm expects to start selling the first molds this year with the first sample already available at the Tartu Crematory. The team intends to expand outside of Estonia in the future.

The same process could be used to make a coffin instead of an urn. The team will first focus on urn production before determining whether larger items, such as coffins, are also feasible.

Although mushrooms have been cultivated in the past, Maidu Silm has developed the method to produce the urns. Rihard Reissaar and Anu Kisand, researchers at the Estonian University of Applied Sciences, also contributed to the development of the concept alongside Andres Tõnissoo.

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