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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, August 20, 2006

Clean headstones honor sacrifice

By Mary Vorsino
Advertiser Urban Honolulu Writer

Mariano Pizarro, a worker at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific at Punchbowl, replaces one of the 150 gravestones he's pulled from the ground for cleaning. "I enjoy my job," Pizarro says. "I give back to the vets and their families."

BRUCE ASATO | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Mariano Pizarro walks among some of the Punchbowl gravestones he's removed for cleaning. Pizarro, a Vietnam veteran, says his job at the cemetery is the best he's ever had.

BRUCE ASATO | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Mariano Pizarro works in sections 200 grave markers at a time.

As a cool wind blows through the tall shade trees at the National Memorial of the Pacific at Punchbowl, the 60-year-old points to the alphabetized parcels he has finished: "A, B, C, D. They're done," he says. "M and O ... almost."

In all, over three years, Pizarro has pulled some 8,598 granite gravestones from the ground, cleaned them by hand with a biodegradable solution and replaced them on a new bed of sand to ensure they don't sink.

The project is part of an effort to step up maintenance at Punchbowl, and Pizarro estimates he is about midway through the work of cleaning more than 33,000 headstones at the cemetery. When he's finished, he'll start all over.

"It's really calm and serene out here," Pizarro says, while on a lunch break this week. "I enjoy my job. I give back to the vets and their families."

Pizarro is the only Punchbowl employee assigned to the tedious, back-wrenching work. When he pulls the 60- to 90- pound markers from the earth, it is the first time they've been out of the ground since their namesakes were buried.

Larry Thornton, foreman at the national cemetery, said workers used to clean the headstones in their places each year, mostly with a biodegradable solution. But in 2003, Thornton decided a more thorough cleaning of the headstones was needed. The work also stopped gravestones from sinking into the red dirt.

Pizarro was hired expressly for the job. A second person spent a few months on the job, then had to be pulled off after undergoing heart surgery.

Thornton said he will hire a second person to help with the work this week, but added Pizarro could do the job just as well on his own.

Meanwhile, the availability of sand has slowed the project considerably with so much demand for the special aggregate from the construction industry. For weeks at a time, Pizarro was left without sand to place under the gravestones.

The flow of sand has improved slightly this year, Thornton said.

Despite the extra expense of the sand and manpower, Thornton said it's worthwhile to clean the grave markers thoroughly. "It's a labor-intensive cleaning," Thornton added. "We've never done it this way before."

For Pizarro, the work is gratifying. Cemetery visitors often comment on his work, which transforms dingy granite grave markers into a brilliant shine.

After he cleans them with the solution and a power-washer, he paints them with a thin varnish. It takes about three days to clean 200 headstones.

One day, as Pizarro was pulling grave markers from the ground, a World War II veteran thanked him for the work and encouraged him to keep at it.

"He appreciated what I was doing," Pizarro said, pensively looking at the horizon. "He really felt deep inside that what I was doing was a beautiful thing."

Pizarro got the job at the cemetery through the U.S. Veterans' Administration.

Pizarro, a Waimanalo resident, served two years in the Army during the Vietnam War, and served his time out in California. In 1971, he came back to the Islands and worked a series of odd jobs in construction. He said the cemetery job is the best he's ever had, and he doesn't plan to retire anytime soon.

Reach Mary Vorsino at mvorsino@honoluluadvertiser.com.