In the corner of a lumber mill in Waimanalo, Cortney Gusick runs a wood sander along the top of a box made from planks of Northfolk pine once destined for the wood chipper. Gusick and her colleague Logan Baggett are turning the reclaimed wood into simple caskets.

Their company, Pahiki Eco-Caskets LLC, is trying allow the dead to, as Gusick puts it, “leave a light touch on the earth.”

Welcome to the green funeral business.

Left Cortney Gusick, founder and 'Casketeer' at Pahiki Eco-Caskets works with casket builder Logan Baggett at their warehouse workshop in Waimanalo.
Cortney Gusick, left, founder and casketeer of Pahiki Eco-Caskets, works with casket builder Logan Baggett, sanding caskets made from reclaimed wood at their workshop in Waimanalo. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Gusick is at the forefront of what funeral industry executives say is a major trend in the way companies care for the dead. Pahiki’s green caskets made from reclaimed wood are part of an increasing panoply of products that includes items like Enigma Ecobalming embalming fluid and biodegradable cremation urns made from Himalayan salt.

As aging, eco-conscious baby boomers face death and dying, there’s a lot of consumers wanting greener options, says Jim Olson, a spokesman for the National Funeral Directors Association, who chairs the organization’s green burial working group. And that’s only expected to grow with the aging of Generation X, he said.

“We’re definitely seeing a huge demand,” said Olson, who operates Olson Funeral Home and Cremation Service in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. Although Olson said he doesn’t have statistics at hand, he estimated that 2 percent to 5 percent of funeral service customers today seek some kind of “greener, softer” option.

The percentage might seem small, but with about 2.6 million people dying annually in the U.S. and many seeking so-called “death care” services, “you’re talking about thousands of people,” Olson said.

Treading more softly into death might mean using formaldehyde-free embalming fluids or foregoing embalming altogether, he said. Some people seek out natural cemeteries that don’t require concrete vaults for coffins, Olson said.

Coffins that degrade easily – made from things like seagrass, wicker, or simple woods – are a big deal, too. Every year nationally, Olson said, the amount of metal buried in the ground in the form of coffins is staggering. It’s enough, he said, to build the Golden Gate Bridge every year. And consumers are increasingly aware of the impact that’s having on the earth.

Meghan Nakamura, a 33-year-old funeral director and embalmer with Nakamura Mortuary in Wailuku, Maui, represents the death care industry’s new generation in Hawaii.

She sees green funeral services as poised to take off in the islands. Nakamura spent three years in the funeral business in Santa Cruz, California, before returning home to Hawaii. In California, she said, “It was a daily question: How can we do this greener?”

Cortney Gusick, founder and 'Casketeer' at Pahiki Eco-Caskets slides the casket lid open at their warehouse workshop in Waimanalo.
Cortney Gusick, founder and casketeer at Pahiki Eco-Caskets, says the way one chooses to be buried is the person’s “eco-legacy.” Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The idea of burying a hunk of steel filled with chemicals into the ground as one’s final act is one of the things that struck Gusick as so wrong about modern burials, especially for people who sought to make eco-friendly choices during their lives.

“Eco-legacy is what I refer to it as,” Gusick says.

During a recent interview at a Kaimuki cafe, Gusick said it was her father who inspired her to start Pahiki. About seven years ago, Gusick’s father, Troy, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and told he had about six months to live. Gusick and her three sisters went to be with Troy in Oregon to help him make funeral arrangements.

Troy wanted to die at home, with a home funeral. It was consistent with the way he lived.

“He did all of the requisite Oregon hippie things,” said Gusick, whose family is originally from the Big Island. Her father was so conscious about conserving electricity, she says, that he would pay the girls 25 cents for each day that they remember to turn lights off in the house.

Filling his body with chemicals and being buried in a metal box just wasn’t Troy, she said.

Pahiki Eco-Caskets, pictured in a company photo, is trying to carve out a niche in the $20 billion funeral business. Pahiki Eco-Caskets

“It seemed just as incongruous and unkind as if I buried that table in the ground,” Gusick said, pointing to a nearby coffee table.

In the end, she found a pine box built in Oregon – “he absolutely loved it,” she says – and a green cemetery, which was basically just an untamed field. Troy wasn’t embalmed.

The family washed his body at home, and they drove the casket to the cemetery in a friend’s truck. A friend dug the grave. The family lowered his body into ground.

“It was the first day it snowed that afternoon, which was perfect,” she said.

After her father died, Gusick eventually found herself going down an analytical rabbit hole, thinking about how hard it had been to find a simple pine casket and the modern death care industry’s implications for the environment.

She was living in Oakland at the time, working as a test engineer for User Testing, a Silicon Valley-based firm that does user experience testing on apps and software.

The idea of starting a casket company in pricey Oakland seemed daunting.

But about 18 months ago, she proposed coming home to work remotely from Honolulu, and her boss went for it. Before long, she was working California hours in Hawaii and spending her afternoons setting up her casket business: buying power tools and building prototype coffins in her home in Manoa with the help of online woodworking tutorials.

“I had 40 percent of the chops I needed to build something,” she says. “I YouTubed my way through the rest of it.”

Gusick bootstrapped her way into a workspace at Waimanalo Wood, a mill and lumber yard that reclaims trees that are headed to the landfill or wood grinder. This includes simple trees like the pines that Gusick uses as well as richly veined tropical woods like mango, monkeypod and kamani.

Meghan Nakamura, a funeral director on Maui, said queries about green burial options were a daily occurrence when she was working in California. Stewart Yerton/Civil Beat

Normally somebody, usually a landowner, would have to pay to dispose of the pine or invasive albizia wood used by Pahiki, said Elmer Maner, the lumber yard’s co-owner.

Instead, Waimanalo Wood takes the lumber off the hands of the wood cutters.

A burly, fourth-generation lumberjack with a ruddy face and prodigious goatee, Maner described his business model as a win for the environment, property owners and tree cutters.

“They don’t like taking the trees to the grinder any more than we do,” Maner said. “And it would all be going to the grinder.”

There’s also the benefit of lower costs. The death care industry in the U.S. is enormous, with estimated annual sales of $20 billion.

One company alone, Service Corp. International Inc., posted $3.03 billion in revenue in 2016, the company said in its annual report to shareholders. The Texas-based company employs 15,361 people full-time and another 8,102 part-time in a national chain of funeral homes and cemeteries, including Borthwick Mortuary & Crematory in Honolulu and Hawaiian Memorial Park Cemetery in Kaneohe, where it has current job openings.

Much of the cost of funeral services come from items that are anathema to green burial advocates. As of 2014, the median cost of a metal casket was about $2,400, embalming about $700, and a vault another $1,400, the National Funeral Directors Association reports. That’s more than half the $7,181 median cost of a funeral with a viewing and burial for 2014, the association reported.

Pahiki’s standard six-foot casket, by contrast, sells for $1,800, she said, and contains none of “the toxic fixins’.”

Pahiki is still in its infancy.

The company started seven months ago and has just started marketing its caskets, Gusick said. But Pahiki’s got big plans. Gusick foresees starting a natural, green cemetery some day: one that doesn’t require caskets to be placed into massive concrete vaults.

Pete Dilwith, vice president of Mililani Memorial Park and Mortuary, said the green funeral business is definitely a trend, although it’s too soon to say whether it’s here to stay.

“I give these people a lot of credit for doing this,” he said. “We believe in buying Hawaii first, and that would be another option we could look at.”

Nakamura, the Maui funeral director, says she has been impressed by what she has heard from Gusick.

“I would be honored to work with them,” she said.

Standing outside Waimanalo Wood at the base of the towering Koolau Mountains, Gusick mused on what attracts her to what some would see as an unlikely passion for a 36-year-old technology company engineer. Death, she says, is one of the things we all share, an essential part of the human condition.

“It’s the most indiscriminate, leveling, timeless, most humanizing thing,” she says. “It touches everyone and everything.”

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