I live in the Pacific Northwest of North America, where mushroom hunting season is in full swing. Hearing about my friends finding new hunting grounds is about as frequent an occurrence as going to the pumpkin patch. I even have a small patch of forest behind my house where I have been spending time wandering lately as the leaves turn orange and the moss a vibrant green. My toddler and I walk with our Mushrooms of the Pacific Northwest field guide and identify hundreds of different types of mushrooms in less than 10 acres of mostly cedar and hemlock trees. Sometimes we stop to make fairy houses around the toadstools and imagine a life where we walk among giant mushrooms.
My toddler and I are endlessly curious about how the mushrooms pop up through dead leaves and fallen trees. I recently realized how much I associate mushrooms with death. Fungi are considered saprotrophs, meaning they feed on decaying organic matter. Some mushrooms even have a very direct correlation with death such as the Deadly Dapperling, Funeral Bells, and Death Caps. Don’t let these names fool you, however. Mushrooms play a vital role in sustaining life on earth.
Mushrooms and Death
Stoned Ape Theory
One of my favorite topics of conversation at a party is the Stoned Ape Theory first proposed by ethnobotanist Terence Mckenna. The theory is merely speculation, but it has inspired scientific study on the topic of psychedelics including psilocybin and DMT and their relationship to human evolution.
The theory goes that psilocybin, a hallucinogenic chemical obtained from certain types of mushrooms, allowed our ancestors to develop cognitive abilities including language and abstract thinking that led to the complex beings we are today.
If this theory has any truth to it, it’s no wonder psychedelic mushrooms have been such an important ritualistic component for many cultures and generations. María Sabina Magdalena García, for example, was a Mazatec sabia and shaman who was known for her sacred mushroom healing ceremonies known as a Velada. This ceremony, still practiced by many Indigenous communities, allows healers to use the mushrooms to connect with spirit, ancestors, and sacred entities.
Psychedelics and End of Life Care
We dedicated an entire article to psychedelics and end of life care, but even since publishing that article in 2022 many countries and states have changed their position on the legalization of psychedelics, including psilocybin. It seems that westernized spaces are beginning to understand the medicinal importance and possibilities of these mushrooms.
To summarize, psychedelics can be used at the end of one’s life to lessen the stress of dying. In 2016, Roland Griffiths et al., found that “high-dose psilocybin produced large decreases in clinician- and self-rated measures of depressed mood and anxiety, along with increases in quality of life, life meaning, and optimism, and decreases in death anxiety.” After 6 months, 80% of participants continued feeling these positive effects.
Psilocybin has become a tool for many caregivers and death care workers in places where the mushrooms are decriminalized. Non hallucinogenic mushrooms such as reishi, lion’s mane, and chaga are also used for end of life care.
Commodifying Mushrooms in the Death Industry
One popular and unfortunately unsuccessful attempt at intentionally utilizing the decomposition powers of mushrooms was the Infinity Burial Suit, founded by the company Coeio. The idea was to embroider mushroom spore-infused thread onto a full body costume worn by the deceased, which would encourage mushrooms to grow and assist in the decomposition process.
Other options have popped up in recent years that focus on the use of mushrooms in burial equipment for a natural burial process such as the mushroom caskets currently for sale by Loop Biotech. The Loop caskets are made in The Netherlands and are certified for traditional and natural burial, as well as cremations. “Mycelium, the underground root network of mushrooms, are known as nature’s biggest recyclers,” states The Loop. “The unique power of mycelium is its ability to share nutrients, communicate with the forest floor, and enhance soil quality. Its power to transform dead organic matter into new life makes this organism the driving force in nature’s cycle of life.”
These are really promising ideas, and there is so much room for the evolution of mushrooms within death care practices. That being said, nothing beats being decomposed by the mushrooms native to the environment a body is buried in, and even if you can’t see the fruiting bodies around grave sites, the network of mycelium is doing its work underground.
Mushrooms and Death
It is clear that mushrooms play an essential role in life on earth. In practicing death care and working with people who are dying, I have had many conversations that always come back to understanding how essential death is in order to live our lives to the fullest. Whether someone witnesses a death of a loved one or has a near death experience of their own and gains a new perspective on their life, I can’t help but feel like mushrooms are here to spread that exact message.
We, much like the mushrooms, could not exist in a world where nothing died. It is as necessary as the air we breathe and the water we drink, and I hope that the next time you eat mushrooms you honor their very important role in sustaining life on earth.