For nearly a century, Borthwick Mortuary has helped families cope with life after death

Text by    James Charisma  ||     Images by    Jonas Maon

Text by James Charisma  ||  Images by Jonas Maon

Although an inevitable part of life, death often comes unplanned. It strikes suddenly, leaving devastation in its wake, and family and friends to make sense of what happens next—plus the tall order of celebrating an individual’s entire life while also mourning their passing.

This is where mortuaries like Borthwick step in. For 99 years, Borthwick Mortuary in downtown Honolulu has providing burial and cremation services for what now averages 900 of Oahu’s recently deceased each year. That’s the equivalent of more than 75 people every month, or between two and three people daily. How many people, deceased or in mourning, have passed through Borthwick’s four chapels over the decades? How many more will each of these downtown mortuaries honor as Hawai‘i’s population swells in the coming years, and the baby boomers enter their 60s and 70s?

It’s not clear why the Borthwick family went into the funeral caretaking business almost a century ago, or why there are three separate mortuaries—Borthwick, Hosoi, and Mililani—operating in such close proximity on the adjacent streets of Maunakea, North Kukui, and South Kukui. But one thing is for certain: Borthwick is a Hawai‘i institution.

“This is a unique industry in that we’re able to help people during one of the worst times in their life,” says Jay Morford, president of Borthwick Mortuary. “My favorite part of the job is when we receive positive letters of appreciation from families, saying that we took care of them and met all of their expectations.”

It seems quite a feat, considering the circumstances. Morford outlines the steps after death: First, a call is made to Borthwick from a hospital, hospice, or home. Next, the mortuary creates a case file: who passed away, where they were, when Borthwick can transport the body, and any final wishes of the deceased. Borthwick handles all arrangements, including embalming or cremation, legal paperwork, permits, catering, flowers, flyers, and hosting the funeral ceremony. 

But even with the complexity involved for an event of this kind, planned or not, Borthwick is able to accomplish everything from receiving the deceased to the final burial within just a week or two. “On the mainland, funerals can occur within just three or four days,” Morford says. “But they’re also usually smaller, sometimes with maybe 20 people. Here, we get some funerals where the attendance is in the hundreds, 200 or so people for a funeral is actually a ballpark figure.”

The sheer volume of people that attend these funerals makes Borthwick’s work even more impressive, but sounds about right for Hawai‘i, where families go back several generations and everyone is someone’s cousin or auntie or uncle. Almost everywhere they go, the staff encounters strangers who have had loved ones pass through Borthwick. 

“Working here, it’s not something learned in school or even really discussed, but people are curious and [death and the funeral process] needs to be talked about,” says sales manager Pat Newalu. “We help with that process and are grateful to be part of people’s lives.”