Without question, climate change has become one of the most pressing issues of our generation. Mitigating it includes every environmental impact of our lives — but also of our deaths.
Rising global temperatures and sea levels, unethical and unsustainable farming and agricultural practices, polluted air quality, floods, fires, hurricanes, droughts, and landslides have turned from rare disasters into all too common, daily occurrences. They not only affect the world’s most vulnerable communities and species, but as Sir David Attenborough recently put it in his alarming documentary called “Our Planet,” “the future existence of the entire natural world.”
Many of us have made conscious changes in our daily lives to reduce our impact on the planet. For instance, a few years ago I made the change to a predominantly plant-based diet. I began to purchase more ethical brands, thrift more, and I even got back into making and altering my own clothes. I started to walk to the store and shop locally and organically as best as I could. My husband and I started to separate our recycling more vigilantly, carrying reusable bags and containers wherever we went and searched for more effective ways to be energy-efficient at home. We made a conscious effort to drive less and opted instead for more walks, mass transit, and bike rides.
We make all of this conscious effort to live a more environmentally sustainable life, in the attempt to reduce our carbon footprint today, so future generations can thrive tomorrow. But what about after we’re gone? What happens when we die, and how can our physical death leave a positive environmental impact on the planet? What will be our eco-legacy?
To guide us in this conversation, we invited Courtney Gusik, the founder of Pahiki Eco Caskets, to join us on Cloud9. Located on the island of O’ahu in Hawaii, Pahiki Eco Caskets are crafted by hand out of 100% untreated, locally sourced, and salvaged wood. They’re part of a growing industry focused on environmental stewardship in death care, also known as the green-death movement — and they’re perfectly congruent with the Baha’i teachings on death and burial.
Courtney starts off her conversation with Cloud9 by walking us through some of the pivotal moments that informed her career, starting as a test engineer in Silicon Valley, to building eco-caskets in her backyard in her native O’ahu, Hawai’i in 2017.
The company’s name — the Hawaiian word Pahiki, which translates to “pass quietly, go lightly, touch gently” — was born out of a personal and intimate experience with the passing of Courtney’s father Troy. Inspired to continue his eco-legacy, Pahiki has committed to crafting high-quality, low-impact caskets, making them accessible to all. In our interview, we ask Courtney to tell the story of how the circumstances of her father’s passing and the inspiration to start Pahiki inform the mission and approach of her company.
We then ask Courtney to explain how an Earth-friendly burial could occur today – in particular, what the environmental implications are of burial practices such as embalming, the various coffin types, and how coffins may be interred.
Much of Courtney’s work as a designer and casket builder for Pahiki is centered around craftsmanship, beauty, and tradition, so we take a moment to reflect on the following words of the prophet and founder of the Baha’i Faith, Baha’u’llah, when he wrote in a tablet:
One of the names of God is the Fashioner. He loveth craftsmanship … Craftsmanship is a book among the books of divine sciences, and a treasure among the treasures of His heavenly wisdom.
Having initially taught herself how to build caskets by watching YouTube videos, Courtney now leads a team of craftspeople out of a workshop in O’ahu. We ask her how aspects of craftsmanship, beauty, prayer, and meditation enter into her practice as a business owner and casket builder, and how this type of craftsmanship connects her to her Indigenous heritage and custodianship of the land. We explore death as an essential and natural part of the human condition, and reflect on why this exposes our inherent oneness as a human family — and how this acknowledgment impacts the way we relate to one another in this fragile and temporary physical life.
As Courtney and I talk about life after death, we also explore Baha’u’llah’s teachings on the life of the soul. Together, we reflect on the spiritual transformation from the physical to the eternal:
Know thou of a truth that the soul, after its separation from the body, will continue to progress until it attaineth the presence of God, in a state and condition which neither the revolution of ages and centuries, nor the changes and chances of this world, can alter. It will endure as long as the Kingdom of God, His sovereignty, His dominion and power will endure. It will manifest the signs of God and His attributes, and will reveal His loving kindness and bounty.
We bring our conversation with Courtney to a close by exploring Baha’i burial practices and observances, which she outlines as 100% environmentally sustainable. We take a moment to reflect on the importance of writing a Will and Testament, and some of the creative and fun ways Courtney has witnessed them being written (anyone want to join a Will party?). We also ask Courtney to share some of her dreams for the future, and the future of Pahiki Eco Caskets, which she hopes will eventually include a natural, green cemetery on her island home of O’ahu.
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