Wabi-sabi and the pursuit of perfect

The pursuit of perfection.
Perfection and the pursuit of making things complete, balanced, and everlasting is quite natural.  I often find myself holding back until something is completely finished to my liking (such as publishing this blog).  I like structured outlines and have an innate appreciation for symmetry both visually and conceptually.  To some degree, there are also certain things I wish to remain the same indefinitely (like where the milk goes in the refrigerator or the way I pack my suitcase for a business trip).  This is how we create order in the chaos that is nature and life.

Embrace the imperfect.
Beauty lies in uniqueness and intimacy.
There is another way, another aesthetic, a different manner in thinking to appreciate the very natural way in which things are never finished, are never symmetric, and are forever changing.  Wabi-sabi has given me a new perspective when it comes to measuring the quality of our caskets.  While funeral directors and families value quality craftsmanship, structural integrity, and sustainable production practices, this does not mean we cannot appreciate the imperfections in the natural objects from which Northwoods caskets are made.  These imperfections do not take away from the quality of the product as determined by its usefulness.  We embrace the imperfections, the asymmetry, and the irregularities of the natural materials that give our caskets a natural beauty where each casket possesses a uniqueness and intimacy.

What is wabi-sabi?
Simplicity, economy, modesty, and intimacy.
Wabi-sabi is a Japanese world view derived from Buddhist teaching of beauty that comes from the imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete.  "Characteristics of the wabi-sabi aesthetic include asymmetry, asperity (roughness or irregularity), simplicity, economy, austerity, modesty, intimacy and appreciation of the ingenuous integrity of natural objects and processes."[1]   "[Wabi-sabi] nurtures all that is authentic by acknowledging three simple realities: nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect."[2]  Wabi-sabi has made a foray into Western thinking on art, architecture, home design, gardening, and green living. After listening to a broadcast of Here On Earth last June, The Wabi-Sabi Way, with guest author/editor, Robyn Griggs Lawrence, I recognized wabi-sabi in the feedback from funeral directors and families commenting on our work at the Northwoods Casket Company.

Imperfect adds character.
Color, knots, and holes add unique character.
At the Northwoods Casket Company, we share this view when it comes to manufacturing our simple pine caskets.  While we take great care to manufacturer our products with the highest standard in quality when it comes to craftsmanship and construction, we take pride in our forgiveness of the natural elements from which our green caskets are made.  We do not discard pine boards for non-structural "imperfections" like color, unshapely knots, or knotholes.  We regard these imperfections as character making each casket unique.  For those boards with unnatural blemishes incurred by the trucks and machines handling the wood from forest to our shop, we make use of them in the floorboards exposing the unsightly only on the underside of the casket.  None of these practices impacts the structural integrity of the casket during its useful life. 

Is this dishonest practice?
Every casket exceeds structural requirements.
Actually, we believe quite the opposite.  Each casket is as beautiful and unique as it is functional.  Every casket exceeds the functional requirements for its useful life.  In fact, we believe that discarding the unsightly materials which would increase waste from our production would be dishonest to our claim to be the greenest casket on the planet.  These practices have reduced material waste to less than 2%.

Are we just being cheap?
There is a difference between being cheap at the cost of functional quality of our product and reducing waste.  We actually don't save money with this practice.  Our wabi-sabi approach to reducing material waste comes at the expense of human capital.  Our craftsmen set aside boards with imperfections (i.e. unique character) for specific purposes.   Boards with extraordinary wood grain, knothole patterns, and coloration from blue stain fungus are reserved for use in the lids.   In other industries that manufacture with wood, these extraordinary materials are discarded as waste.  This includes boards with such incredibly beautiful knothole patterns that compromise the structural integrity of the board--but since the lid provides zero structural support in our casket design, the lid is a perfect place for those boards with the most unique character.   While careful selection in materials has significantly reduced waste and carbon impact, we've added to the cost of human capital in our craftsman.  We actually incur additional cost by hand-selecting material for different parts of the final product.

Russ & Josh Koepsell admire beauty in simplicity.
Funeral directors appreciate wabi-sabi.
Feedback from families and funeral directors has been phenomenal. In a culture often absorbed in the pursuit of perfection as defined by the absence of imperfection, more of our families are expressing true appreciation for the little imperfections that add character to each and every one of our caskets.  Imperfect is perfect.

[1] Wabi-Sabi.  Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wabi-sabi
[2] Powell, Richard R. (2004). Wabi Sabi Simple. Adams Media. ISBN 1-59337-178-0.