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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, May 26, 2001

Lei to drape graves with gratitude

 •  Memorial Day events
 •  What's open and closed Monday

By Jessica Webster
Advertiser Staff Writer

Memorial Day lei-making is familiar, common and expected by the people of Hawai'i, but it never fails to give Vietnam veteran Gary Caboto chicken skin.

Elinor Matsumoto checks the fragrance of the lei she helped make for the Mayor's Memorial Day Ceremony. The lei are draped on graves in Punchbowl and elsewhere.

Jeff Widener • The Honolulu Advertiser

Caboto climbs to the edge of Punchbowl crater every Memorial Day before before dawn to watch the sun ascend and illuminate lei after lei draped over 33,143 graves — an awesome sight, he says.

"The lei are very beautiful, and of course, unique to Hawai'i," said Caboto. "I experience this overwhelming sense of gratitude. I feel very fortunate for the fact that I'm still walking this earth."

Caboto has helped lead the Memorial Day lei-making and the Mayor's Memorial Day Ceremony planning for almost eight years. This weekend, more than 1,000 vehicles an hour will pass through to see the immaculate landscaping and lei-laden gravesites in Punchbowl.

The lei-making is perhaps one of the largest multi-

island, volunteer-intensive endeavors in the state. Children string lei at home, at daycare and in school.

Individuals and businesses donate thousands upon thousands of flowers for senior citizens and other volunteers to make into lei.

Aloha Airlines flies many of the floral donations to O'ahu. Civil Defense workers watch mini-televisions late into the night while waiting for the flowers to arrive so they can unload them.

And then volunteers like Elinor Matsumoto and Joy Criss join groups of other volunteers to string lei and talk story. They swap stories about children and grandchildren and their trips to Las Vegas. They share their knowledge about lei and give the flowers human characteristics: sleeping, weary, vibrant, alive.

"I love this fellowship when we all get together," said Matsumoto, who volunteers much of her time to the Department of Parks and Recreation and hospital work. "It's really important; a good cause. So I come out."

For other volunteers, the lei-making is more personal. Many seniors have friends and family buried at Punchbowl, which Native Hawaiians know as Puowaina — hill of sacrifice.

Seniors at the Makua Ali'i Senior Center are among countless volunteers who create the beautiful lei for Memorial Day events.

Jeff Widener • The Honolulu Advertiser

And the volunteers know they are working to make certain every grave has a lei, a goal that has become more tenuous in recent years. This year's teacher strike made it more difficult for students to make lei as a class project, and volunteers worked overtime to make up for roughly 10,000 absent lei.

Ann Niino, event coordinator for the Mayor's Memorial Day Ceremony, said the volunteer work usually brings 40,000 lei, which is enough for Punchbowl and the Kane'ohe cemetery, with a few left for the USS Arizona Memorial.

The National Guard transports the lei from the Neighbor Islands while various fire departments, the Hawai'i Transportation Association, city Department of Parks and Recreation employees and other volunteers transport more lei to the cemeteries. Boy Scouts carry them to the graves at Punchbowl, and Girl Scouts at Kane'ohe.

"There's a lot of aloha going into just one lei and one grave," said Caboto.

Niino said she is amazed at the number of people and volunteers of all ages."There really are a lot of unsung heroes," she said.