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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Monday, May 31, 2004

Hawai'i folks often have gifts for dearly departed

 •  Graveyard do's and don'ts

By Mary Kaye Ritz
Advertiser Religion & Ethics Writer

Nanette Napoleon has seen the strangest things left as graveyard memorabilia, or what she calls "visitation goods."

Hawai'i graveyard expert Nanette Napoleon walks through Oahu Cemetery. Flowers, food and other gifts are commonly left at graves on Memorial Day and other time of the year.

Richard Ambo • The Honolulu Advertiser

We're not talking about people bringing lei, flowers or photos to their family's graves. We're not even talking oranges or tangerines, cans of beer, bottles of soda, incense, cups of tea, chopsticks — all things Hawai'i's Eastern religions regularly leave to feed their ancestors' hungry ghosts.

Think out of the box — much farther out. Think a deck of cards, candles, bottles of sake or Jim Beam, crocheted crafts or handmade jewelry.

"I've seen everything from slippers to toys for children, books with markers to favorite passages, sports equipment — once even a bowling ball," said the Kailua author who also leads graveyard tours. "That was a shocker."

On Memorial Day, we ritualistically mourn our dearly departed and make visits to their graves. But it's also a day that highlights Hawai'i's blend of customs and celebrates the religious distinctions that each culture brings to the vast banquet table: a little dish of Buddhism here, a spot of Taoism there, with some Christianity on the side.

Honolulu's notable cemeteries:

The biggie: The National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, better known as Punchbowl, is often called "the Arlington of the west." It sits inside the crater of Puowaina; 532-3720.

Hidden treasures: On the grounds of Manoa Valley Theatre; the Kay-Akaka family cemetery off Akaka Lane in Pauoa Valley.


• Lin Yee Chung "Manoa Chinese Cemetery," where the island's most elaborate Ching Ming ceremony is held each April.

• The mausoleum and surrounding graves at Kawaiahao Church.

• Honolulu Memorial Park Cemetery, with its three-story columbarium (urn house) that looks like a pagoda. You can see it from the Pali.

• Makiki Cemetery's eclectic mix.

• O'ahu Cemetery, with its famous residents and early pioneers as well as the best collection of 19th-century funerary art (gravestones, symbols, angels) in town.

Kathy Torcaso of California brought her aunt, Jean Wilson, to Oahu Cemetery to put fresh flowers on the graves of grandmother Ada Gartley and great-grandfather Peter Cushman Jones, one of the founders of Bank of Hawai'i.

They'd made a pit stop at Subway first, relaxing at the part of the historic cemetery filled with the first fathers and founders of the city. (Gartley Place in Nu'uanu is named for their relatives.) Wilson, who now lives in a retirement facility, likes to visit on a regular basis. When she lived in Nu'uanu, she used to regularly clip whatever happened to be in bloom to decorate the graves.

That's another thing Napoleon finds notable: "The amount of flowers and other things on the grave is way more than any other state in the union does," the author said.

When it comes to things that go bump in the night — and day — at cemeteries all around O'ahu, Napoleon should know. She's written "Oahu Cemetery, Burial Ground and Historic Site"; published a series of cemetery directories, which are reference works found in libraries and archives; and keeps track of more than 10,000 tombstone inscriptions on the island of O'ahu alone.

How much time do Hawai'i residents spend in cemeteries?

"In the Mainland, Memorial Day is strictly Memorial 'day,' " Napoleon said. "I've never seen the proliferation of flowers and visitation on all your major holidays: Christmas, Easter, Mother's Day, which is probably the hugest, even more so than Memorial Day. And Father's Day to a lesser extent."

Why? Maybe island cemeteries are more inviting, she surmises.

Nanette Napoleon is the author of a book about Oahu Cemetery. She also leads graveyard tours and has documented headstone inscriptions.

Richard Ambo • The Honolulu Advertiser

Hawai'i's mix of cultures can occur within a single family, Napoleon said. At the old plantation graveyards, the first generation of issei Buddhists will be buried, but the children may have converted to Christianity and were buried at a church. So there goes the old idea of the family plot, and a single trip to the cemetery for Memorial Day.

"It becomes a marathon for some people," she said.

Napoleon points out that the mix also includes spiritual practices:

"Even though Christianity is the main religion, there's a dual spirituality. Many have not abandoned (their family beliefs) ... It's a duality: Some parts of their lives, it's strictly Christian, some Buddhist."

It also makes for fun sightseeing.

"It's interesting just to go around to look at the memorabilia," Napoleon said, adding that many cemeteries cater to Hawai'i's diversity: "Our graveyards here are really akamai to that, and make some kind of accommodation."

Reach Mary Kaye Ritz at 525-8035 or mritz@honoluluadvertiser.com.

• • •

Graveyard do's and don'ts:

Traditional at many Japanese gravesites are favorite foods that the deceased can use in the afterlife.

Richard Ambo • The Honolulu Advertiser

• Do bring a picnic, if you want to hang out for awhile.

• Do bring musical instruments for an impromptu jam session. Gabby Pahinui's family does.

• Do bring things you want to share with your loved one: his favorite brand of beer, her favorite flowers.

• Don't leave bottles perched in precarious places.

• Don't eat food/do eat food left for the hungry ghosts: This depends on your cultural beliefs. Here in Hawai'i, cemetery expert Nanette Napoleon said, you would not eat food left for your ancestor's hungry ghost. In China, she explained, it is expected that the food left for the hungry ghosts will feed the poor.

"In Western society, that's a no-no," she noted. "Caretakers leave it a couple days, but toss it pretty quickly, because it attracts mice and sometimes the homeless."

She finds it more likely that families will gather in the graveyard for religious purposes, then go out to eat together afterward — unless they've roasted a whole pig or duck. Then the family might take it home.