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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, August 20, 2002

State's old cemeteries allowed to languish

By James Gonser
Advertiser Urban Honolulu Writer

More than 6,000 gravesites at Hawai'i's four state-owned cemeteries still suffer neglect and vandalism — including graffiti, rubbish and cracked headstones — despite a scathing report delivered more than 15 years ago in which the state called for cleanup and improvements.

Volunteers, from left, Sherwood Gould, Darryn Ng and Thomas Shirai have rallied community members to clean up Puea Cemetery at the intersection of North School Street and Kapalama Avenue.

Eugene Tanner • The Honolulu Advertiser

The state inherited the four cemeteries — 'Aiea, Puea, Makiki and Pu'ukamali'i — at various times during the past century.

Outside of the monthly mowing, any maintenance is done by church groups, relatives of the deceased or community volunteers.

A 1987 report, released by the state Department of Accounting and General Services, outlined corrective measures to end decades of neglect, including disinterment and relocation of some graves within the cemeteries to create public parks, contracting with a private organization for maintenance or keeping the status quo but providing money for upkeep.

The report recommended lawmakers find a way to care for the cemeteries under their protection, and spend an estimated $75,000 a year to maintain them. But no money has been allocated.

"We have no budget really. Nothing specifically for the cemeteries," said James Hisano, public building management services branch chief for DAGS. "My own groundspeople or a work line from O'ahu Community Correctional Center go out about once a month to mow."

The lack of money does not allow the state to do any trimming, repairs or clean grave markers.

"Whoever the people are in there, as it goes further down the line, you kind of forget who that person was and then that is it," said Kalihi resident Edgar Akina, who worked with about 40 other volunteers this month to clean up Puea Cemetery. "We need to help preserve and protect these things because it is their final resting place. We all need to do something. We cannot just let these things happen."

Puea Cemetery is at North School Street and Kapalama Avenue. Formerly known as Kapalama Cemetery, it predates 1890 and was deeded to the state by Kamehameha Schools in 1906. A private group, the Puea Cemetery Association, managed the property through 1962 when it was labeled in another report as the "most neglected cemetery in Honolulu."

Today, it is owned jointly by the city, state and the Ka'ahumanu Society, dedicated to preserving the memory of Queen Ka'ahumanu. The society has enclosed its area with a chain link fence, and its members take care of its graves.

University students spent weeks carefully recording every name and the condition of every grave for the 1987 report. The students identified 993 graves in the state's portion of Puea and 168 in the city's portion for a total of 1,161. Many more are likely unidentified because they are covered over by dirt or torn apart by tree roots.

A bill to pay for cemetery maintenance died in committee after being introduced last session by Sen. Suzanne Chun Oakland, D-14th (Palama, 'Alewa Heights).

"It is not the highest priority compared to many other things we are faced with," Chun Oakland said. "From small-girl time, I passed through the area and it just looked terrible. Every time I passed, it bothered me that it was not taken care of. I would think if there is enough interest, we can introduce the bill again on behalf of our community."

The 'Aiea Cemetery is directly north of Aloha Stadium and was described in the report as "a virtual island in a sea of highways." The state estimates it has more than 500 gravesites and hundreds with no identifiable markers on the 1.5-acre property.

Makiki Cemetery, the oldest and largest of the state facilities, is bounded by Wilder Avenue and Pensacola and Prospect streets. It has about 4,000 graves on 7 acres and was established in 1877 to accommodate Native Hawaiians, but was later opened to other ethnic groups.

Pu'ukamali'i Cemetery on Makanani Drive in 'Alewa Heights is known for its views of Honolulu and has an estimated 462 graves.

Only Makiki and Pu'ukamali'i still allow burials and then only for close family members, Hisano said.

While all of the cemeteries suffer from neglect and vandalism, just one day of cleaning can make a difference, Akina said.

On Aug. 3 at Puea, the Damien Memorial High School football team, a crew from Sherwood's Tree Trimming, and dozens of residents cut back trees and bushes, trimmed overgrown areas, picked up rubbish and lugged it all to the roadside creating a pile 7 feet high for city crews to remove.

"It doesn't need big bucks," said tree trimmer Sherwood Gould. "A little TLC goes a long way."

Kalihi-Palama Neighborhood Board member Darryn Ng would like to see a sign erected to give the cemetery some recognition.

The volunteers would like to put up a fence around the cemetery to keep vandals out and are looking for a company that will donate fencing or materials. The group is targeting national Make a Difference Day, Oct. 26, for their next work project.

"It needs to be protected. At least a fence to go around there to deter people from going in and drinking," Akina said. "We are trying to get the community activated. With the community, prison crews and a fence, I think we can get a workable situation."

Hisano said the state is not actively looking for community groups to take over maintenance, citing liability concerns over disturbing burial sites.

"A pile of stones could be a marker and a volunteer could move some stones without realizing what he is doing," Hisano said. "We don't go out and seek help. We consider it when approached, but that in itself kind of creates problems. Volunteer groups can be inconsistent. Here today, gone tomorrow. It's hard for us to depend on them."

But without the Legislature's providing money, the state may have little choice, Akina said.

Reach James Gonser at jgonser@honoluluadvertiser.com or 535-2431.