Photo: Eco-casket with floral decoration
Pa¯hiki eco-caskets are constructed from biodegradable wood and glue for a seamless return to the earth. - Photo: Courtesy Pa¯hiki Eco-Caskets

When Cortney Gusick’s father was diagnosed with late-stage cancer, her ‘ohana felt privileged to have time to be thoughtful and deliberate in their choices for his care, and ultimately his remains.

Photo: Cortney Gusick
Cortney Gusick

During his final five months, Gusick’s father was able to see where he would be buried and the shroud he would be wrapped in. But when it came time to consider what he’d be buried in, traditional caskets coated with lacquer and adorned with metal embellishments just didn’t seem like the right fit. “Are those things on any other day we should bury in our backyard?” Gusick asked.

An Internet search led Gusick to a casket maker in Oregon who specialized in biodegradable, earth-friendly caskets built of plain pine. “It was a wonderful opportunity to bury my dad’s body in the end with something that will seamlessly return to the earth. That felt really good,” Gusick said. “Metal, rubber, plastics, they just didn’t feel consistent.”

Photo: Decorating an eco-casket with flowers

By eliminating the materials that can leach or contribute to pollution, ‘green’ caskets leave a light touch on the earth – even more so than cremation. According to Gusick, about 70 percent of the state’s population chooses cremation, which calls for controlled burning of 27 to 30 gallons of fuel that releases gas into the atmosphere. “Everything has a cost to it,” she said.

After holding the experience inside of her for years, in 2017 Gusick began prototyping biodegradable caskets, relying on YouTube tutorials and the tactile skills her father had passed on to all four of his daughters. Gusick said, “Once I got my hands on it, I realized ‘This is my path. This is what I’m designed to do, something that I’m uniquely qualified for.’”

Today Gusick is owner of Pāhiki Eco-Caskets, where she spends about 30 hours a week on top of her full-time job as a test engineer for San Francisco-based User Testing. After she’s done with her day job, she heads to Waimänalo Wood, the sawmill where she and her one full-time employee operate. The sawmill offers a variety of woods, depending on what arborists bring: Norfolk pine, monkeypod, albizia, avocado and mango. “We don’t have to import anything to make these so the carbon footprint is small,” she noted.

Eco-caskets take about 10 years to break down, roughly the same amount of time for an unembalmed body to completely cycle back. In the end, “You get to become part of the land,” said Gusick. “You’re adding structure and nutrients to the ground.”

Another advantage to green burials is cost: Pāhiki’s eco-caskets cost $1,800 to $3,800. Traditional caskets, by contrast, start at around $3,000 and some are as expensive as $25,000. According to Gusick, the average price is about $7,000. Some choose Pähiki caskets because they’re environmentally-friendly, others because they’re affordable, “Or maybe both, Gusick adds. “Either way, it’s win-win.”

About Mālama Loans

Courtney Gusick put her own resources into launching Pāhiki Eco-Caskets, with help from early investors. In January, she took advantage of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs Mālama Loan program to expand to a bigger workspace, purchase industrial tools and wood, and cover labor costs.

She turned to OHA Loans because the Hawaiian-serving organization is like-minded in regard to land and the environment. “It was so important for me to have local resources and work with people who have vested interests in the land, their resources and the environment,” Gusick said. “It felt healthier to me to seek that first.”

More information about Pāhiki Eco-Caskets is available at www.pahikicaskets.com, or by calling (808) 542-7691. You can also find them on social media as @ pahikicaskets.

Visit www.oha.org/loans for more information about OHA Loans.