In the fertile swath of Waimanalo that hugs the Ko‘olau, amid farms and nurseries exploding with life, is a budding business that could revolutionize the way we deal with death.
“We’re shipping this to Hilo at the end of the week,” said Cortney Gusick on a recent Tuesday morning, looking at a 3-foot-wide handcrafted monkeypod casket, built to return to the earth, along with the body that will rest in it. “It’s for a family that really desired to have something truly local — locally grown, locally sourced, locally made.”
Gusick is the founder of Pahiki Eco-Caskets, which she established in 2017 to offer an earth-friendlier alternative to traditional burials and cremations, but also in the bigger picture to help Hawaii become less dependent on imports and learn to better utilize its natural resources.
In a corner of lumberyard Waimanalo Wood’s big green warehouse/workshop/showroom, Gusick and Logan Baggett make caskets from untreated locally grown wood. Gusick, who until last November was a test engineer working remotely for the Silicon Valley firm User Testing, is clear-eyed and realistic about the topic at hand, yet also empathetic and caring. She is the perfect ambassador for what is called the “death space.”
Her new career is, in a way, a final gift from her father, who lived in Central Oregon. He was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2010, and Gusick and her family found it wasn’t easy to give their father a burial that would honor the eco-conscious life he led.
Every year, nationwide, traditional burials put 20 million feet of wood, 4.3 million gallons of embalming fluids, 1.6 million tons of concrete, 17,000 tons of copper and bronze and 64,500 tons of steel into the ground, according to the Green Burial Council. Cremation produces 1.74 billion pounds of carbon dioxide emissions and releases mercury into our air and water, and the upkeep of manicured cemeteries suck up water and spread fertilizer.
“We recycled, composted, upcycled … so we were like, why would we all of a sudden do this in the end piece?” Gusick said about facing only earth-harming traditional options when planning her father’s funeral. But through research she and her family were able to “address this experience in a way that looks very consistent with my dad’s life.”
He died at home, his family washed his body, wrapped it in a shroud, placed it in an eco-casket similar to what Pahiki makes today, and buried it at the Camp Polk Cemetery, near Sisters, Ore., a resting place of pioneers. “It’s a natural, rugged free space,” said Gusick. “You put a stake in the ground to claim where you’re going to bury the person.”
The whole process “really stuck with me,” said Gusick. “Once we walked away from that experience, I felt, this is my calling.” The thought of helping other families with what she went through “didn’t feel draining or heavy to me.”
So she started laying the groundwork for Pahiki in her Manoa backyard. She made her first prototypes with wood from Home Depot, but the fact that it was imported and came with a heavy carbon footprint bothered her. So she looked closer to home, asking questions like, “do we have any kind of local wood supply? Do we have wood that’s being cut down intentionally, by arborists, the state, or for the rail project, etc. — and if yes, where does that wood go? So I started Googling and Waimanalo Wood popped up.”
Waimanalo Wood specializes in salvaging hardwood trees. “I drove out here one morning about a year and a half ago and we haven’t left since,” she laughed. “Not only are their principles and supply chain aligned with what we are doing, but they also happened to have this space that was free and they offered it to us.”
Through Waimanalo Wood, trees that would normally be fed through wood chippers for mulch or hauled to landfills to rot are being used to make lumber, which in turn becomes homes, furniture and … caskets. Today, Pahiki has about a dozen caskets available on any given day, stacked high on shelves in the warehouse. Below them, Baggett skillfully works with large slabs of mango, eucalyptus, monkeypod, Norfolk pine and albizia. Pahiki is the first company in the state to make a commercially sold albizia product. The handsome, simple caskets are metal-free, crafted instead with splines, dowels and nontoxic glue. They are left unfinished or varnished with natural shellac, which is made from resin secreted by the lac beetle.
A chemical-free casket that is not artificially sealed takes about 10 years to decompose back to the earth, which coincidentally is the same rate it takes the human body to turn to dust, explained Gusick. “It will have a relatively short life span, compared to the typical caskets that are usually made of steel, of different gauges, which will break down at approximately never.”
Pahiki caskets run from $2,800 for a Norfolk pine model to $4,800 for monkeypod. The median price for a metal burial casket is $2,400 and $1,000 for a cremation casket, according to the National Funeral Directors Association’s 2019 Cremation and Burial Report.
“A few people do say, ‘I can go to Home Depot and make one of those for $600 out of pine,’” said Gusick, to which she replies, “‘I know, I did the same on the prototype.’ I understand. I would have said the same before I understood the difference between pine wood imported from Wisconsin at Home Depot versus pine wood that I know was grown here, and went through 14 different steps of labor to become lumber, and all these people are employed because of it.”
For Gusick, it is not “an either or thing. We just need more options.” She has received a “wonderful, warm reception from local mortuaries,” and is proud to be in Mililani Mortuary and Dodo Mortuary in Hilo.
Pahiki doesn’t release its sales numbers, but Gusick said they have steadily grown over the past year. They have grown enough that Baggett now crafts caskets solo. Gusick no longer has time for the hands-on work, she is so busy with partnership meetings, business development and giving talks.
And she has had to apologetically turn down requests from the mainland — until now. This month, after launching neighbor island shipping, Pahiki will send its first caskets to California, with the Bay Area as its test market. Mindful of the environmental cost shipping adds to a casket, Gusick has created an eco-tax that will go to reforestation initiatives in Hawaii. “I can’t name the organization yet, but there will be a very direct, very tangible relationship between every casket shipped and money allocated to reforestation,” said Gusick.
But shipping Waimanalo-made caskets to the Lower 48 is a short-term phase. Gusick envisions taking her model of using local wood, with a focus on invasive species, and local workers to other states, where they can take advantage of their own resources. “If we have by volume all of these reclaimed logs here, imagine what Oregon or Washingon is like,” mused Gusick.
Pahiki Eco-Caskets is part of a slowly growing international movement that started with the creation of a woodland burial ground in northeastern England in 1993. In the U.S., the first conservation burial ground, Ramsey Creek Preserve in South Carolina, opened in 1998, and the Green Burial Council was founded in 2005.
In Hawaii, though you may now buy an eco-casket, for that final step, you still need to either purchase a traditional plot or pay for cremation at a mortuary. But that may soon change. On Maui, the pioneering nonprofit Doorway Into Light launched the state’s only nonprofit, certified-green funeral home in 2012, and operates the Death Store, a community educational resource center where people can learn about everything from ocean body burials and advanced health care directives to organ donation — and, yes, pine caskets.
Founded by executive director Bodhi Be, his wife and educator Leilah Be and the nontraditional spiritual leader and author Ram Dass, Doorway Into Light has a detailed plan for a “place for the living and the dead” that includes a conservation burial ground in upcountry Maui. The organization is now in the fundraising stage to purchase an identified parcel of land.
Gusick hopes to one day offer the same to Oahu residents, and is scouting for land and figuring out the possibilities.
“People don’t want to pollute the earth at the end,” said Gusick. “Because we’ve never talked about a better way, we don’t know what a better option is.” Which is why for her, Pahiki’s role as an educator — on everything from the Federal Trade Commission Funeral Rule to home burials — “is as significant as our caskets.”
In the meantime, she continues to relish helping people. A recent client had told her that his wife had requested since the earliest days of their marriage that she be buried in a “pine box.” When Gusick checked in with him to ask what his Pahiki experience was like, the husband told her, “ ‘It was so meaningful to me that for 50 years my wife has been telling me exactly what she wanted and I was able to fulfill it.’ He came and picked out her casket before she passed away, and it was just beautiful.”