Aging cemetery provides Native Hawaiian genealogical details

Jun 11, 2015, 5:24 PM

HONOLULU (AP) — Sarah Kailikele was 84 years old when she died on Aug. 14, 1909, according to the inscription on her toppled tombstone, which was leaning on the base it was once mounted on.

University of Hawaii students learning how to preserve cemeteries Wednesday and Thursday were able to glean that she’s likely the oldest person buried at Pauoa Hawaiian Cemetery, a small, mostly neglected collection of graves in one of Honolulu’s older neighborhoods.

“She lived under seven ruling monarchs,” said Nanette Napoleon, a freelance historical researcher whose work focuses on cemeteries. “That’s incredible.” At the time, a person in Hawaii typically would live to be about 60, she said.

Cemeteries can provide a wealth of information for people tracing their Native Hawaiian genealogy, Napoleon said. But little or no burial records were kept at many of these mid- to late 19th century cemeteries, Napoleon said. The vast majority of Hawaii’s 300 cemeteries are like Pauoa’s, where a chapel once stood near where a monkeypod tree now looms tall and wide.

“We had an oral tradition,” she said of Native Hawaiian culture. “It’s very important to know who you are. Who your ancestors were makes you who you are.”

The multidisciplined summer seminar through the Manoa campus’ historic preservation program in the American studies department is an effort to teach the community how to preserve neighborhood cemeteries. While the students learn to repair grave markers, they’re mapping out the graves and recording inscription information to put into a database that people can use as another resource to trace genealogy.

Before starting their work, the group held hands in a circle to pray and chant in Hawaiian as a gesture of respect.

Not far from Kailikele’s grave, Richard Miller showed seminar participants how to repair a grave marker that was found cracked in half. It belongs to James K. Hue, who was 40 years old when he died in 1916.

Miller, who repairs and preserves grave markers and tombs at Molokai’s Kalaupapa National Historical Park, showed them how to use an epoxy substance to meld the pieces together.

The problem with Kailikele’s tombstone is that it’s covered in a mosslike organism called lichen, he said: “It will cover the inscription and eventually erode it.”

The students determined there are 113 people buried in the cemetery and were able to identify some that had no obvious markers. In one large plot, there’s only one grave marker, but they could tell that at least five others are buried there. Upon closer inspection, there are names faintly visible in the cement blocks delineating the plot. There are aging plants marking the five others. “Did they just not have money” for a marker, Napoleon said. “Usually that’s the case.”

Fulbright Scholar and archaeologist Alja Zorz, who is participating in the seminar, used shaving cream to help make out some names: Steven, Lihooe and Kekela. Shaving cream fills in the spaces where the names are carved, making them easier to read.

On holidays such as Christmas and Memorial Day, it’s common for Hawaii families to visit gravesites of loved ones. “Even on those busy days, you don’t see a lot of signs of visitation here,” Napoleon said. A few graves had upturned vases with dried-out flowers, and one had faded holiday tinsel.

“Unfortunately, families have moved away and they have abandoned their gravesites,” Napoleon said.

Nowadays there are websites for tracing ancestry, said Noelle Kahanu, assistant specialist in public humanities and Native Hawaiian programs in the American studies department. “But there’s nothing that replaces being in a cemetery. … Nothing replaces your kuleana to the gravesites,” she said using the Hawaiian word for responsibility.


Follow Jennifer Sinco Kelleher at .

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Aging cemetery provides Native Hawaiian genealogical details