I'm told my columns take readers down "a rabbit hole" into who knows what, so I warn you: This is a column about death. But it's also about life, so please read on.
It's a story about my friend Bodhi Be, a longtime Maui businessman and ordained interfaith minister, who owned the Maui Juice Co. and Rainbow Menehune Sprout Co.
When we laid to rest our dear friend Willi Wolff after caring for him lovingly as he died of melanoma, Bodhi got interested in the particulars of "aftercare."
When the mortuary offered to send a hearse, Bodhi inquired, "Do you take deliveries?" Sure enough, they did, although no one had posed the question before. Rather than have him carried away by a stranger, we decided to take him to the crematorium ourselves.
Bodhi discovered that a cardboard box was available instead of an expensive coffin. (The average cost of a funeral package is $7,300, according to the National Funeral Directors Association. A cemetery plot runs $5,000.)
Since there wasn't much money in Willi's estate, our friends joyously settled on the box option, and, after washing, anointing, and dressing him, Willi was lifted into the back of Bodhi's truck for special delivery.
That was in 2005. Since then, Bodhi, a longtime hospice volunteer, has devoted himself to the work of conscious dying and its aftermath, becoming an alternative funeral director with a special interest in green burials and home funerals.
The word kanu in Hawaiian, "to plant," also means "to bury," indicating the rich relationship that occurs when mortal remains are allowed to replenish the earth, as they are in traditional cultures. But in America, to hear Bodhi tell it, over 800,000 pounds of toxic embalming fluid ( formaldehyde!) are put into graves every year, along with 3 million board feet of hardwood, 1.5 million tons of concrete, and 27,000 tons of metal, enough to build the Golden Gate Bridge.
At the end of last year, Doorway into Light, the nonprofit of which Bodhi is executive director, opened an establishment bluntly called TheDeathStore (yes, it's one word) to alert Maui folks to the reality that there's a new, more eco-sustainable way.
"What I'm out to do is reinvent the funeral industry," he said. "I want to help communities reclaim what I call sacred service and take back what we've given away to big business."
His store's grand opening is this Saturday, March 10, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. with a blessing at noon. (It's at the Pauwela Cannery, 375 W. Kuiaha Road, No. 5, about half a mile up from Hana Highway.) Walk mauka of the hardware store, and there it is, a friendly space with ferns and ape and two deck chairs on the patio. There's a splash of sunlight and the sound of rustling bamboo.
It feels nice.
But wait. Cross the threshold into the artfully lit interior and there you see them: the coffins. The inexpensive, biodegradable coffins (bamboo and sea grass from China circa $1,100-$1,700); the simple pine box, fashioned by Bodhi and finished with natural oils ($450), or at the back, the ultimate in impermanence, cardboard boxes for $50.
In an upright "coffin bookcase" to the right of the entrance sit biodegradable urns of various prices and materials, from the seashell shape made of recycled paper designed to dissolve in the ocean, to the eco-urns of corn starch (also dissolvable) and simple inexpensive boxes.
Brochures for these wares sit on a table called the "The Surfin' Coffin Table," a specialty one Bodhi made that comes with a skeg. "Why not make friends with your coffin before you're in it?"
That of course, is the great point. "In a way I've taken on the cultural norm about death, which includes aversion, denial and avoidance," he said. "But if we don't have a healthy relationship with our approaching death, or that of our loved ones, we're not fully alive."
Bodhi hopes the store (open Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. or by appointment) will become a community resource center so that people can discover what is important to them and learn their options. The gamut of information includes such topics as home funerals, ocean body burials, end-of-life counseling and death midwife services, along with advanced care directives, durable power of attorney and caregiver support. There's a lending library, too.
Doorway into Light even has its own hearse, a white 1983 Buick LaSalle with burgundy curtains, and you're welcome to ride along.
It's not for everyone, but Bodhi has helped people create their own deeply meaningful home services for newly departed loved ones. "I've seen cardboard boxes turned into beautiful coffins by family and friends. It's amazing what you can do with colored pens, photographs and a glue gun."
* Laurel Murphy is a former staff writer for The Maui News whose "Keiki o ka 'Aina" column appears each Tuesday. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.