Many Oahu veterans' graves could lack Memorial Day lei
• Photo gallery: Memorial Lei
By Suzanne Roig
Advertiser Staff Writer
Calling all lei makers: About 25,000 lei still are needed to decorate the graves of veterans for Memorial Day, a Hawai'i tradition for more than two decades.
Despite the dedication of 60 seniors working tirelessly at the Makua Alii Senior Center and at district park senior centers across Honolulu yesterday, there is expected to be a severe shortage of lei to decorate the 33,000 grave sites at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific at Punchbowl, and the 9,000 grave sites at the State Veterans Cemetery in Kāne'ohe.
There's a perennial call for more lei for Memorial Day, but this year's shortfall is more pronounced than usual. The supply is so short that there are fears the Kāne'ohe cemetery might not get any lei at all.
"It's about honoring the veterans," said Gene Castagnetti, director at Punchbowl. "It would be disappointing if we couldn't rally the community — the young and the old — to step forward and heed the call of duty as our veterans have done."
Each year, Scouts place a small American flag and a fresh flower lei on veterans' graves at the two cemeteries. Punchbowl receives the lion's share of donated lei. What's left goes to the State Veterans Cemetery.
Scouts will fan out at what's known as the Good Turn ceremony at 1 p.m. tomorrow, Castagnetti said. He hopes the community will come through with enough lei to honor all the veterans.
"We're the envy of the other nations with how we honor our war dead," he said. "It's a compliment to our society that we have not forgotten the service and sacrifice of our veterans."
Several factors have combined to aggravate the lack of lei this year, starting with an international shortage of orchids from Thailand and a shortage of tuberose from the Big Island, according to lei makers.
A change in the public school calendar also had a big impact, Castagnetti said. Public schools typically help supply lei, but went on summer break earlier this year than in the past, Castagnetti said. Students were in school until June 8 last year, long enough to help with the Memorial Day lei project. Their last day this year was Wednesday.
"It's an unanticipated consequence of the changing school calendar," Castagnetti said.
Two refrigerator containers normally filled with lei were less than a quarter full by late morning yesterday.
By the end of the day, more than 2,500 lei were expected to be delivered to Punchbowl courtesy of the Makua Alii seniors, who came from all parts of the island to make plumeria lei.
The flowers, many already wilted and marred, were picked the day before at the Koko Crater Botanical Garden by Job Corps volunteers and city parks department employees.
"We are low on flowers," Steven Santiago, city Department of Parks and Recreation recreation specialist, said yesterday. "We normally have more people here, too."
Many of the seniors at Makua Alii, a senior center at a public housing complex on Kalākaua Avenue, have been coming year after year to make lei for the graves. While they strung flowers, they reconnected old friendships and chatted. Some were silent, reflecting that perhaps a lei they were making would be placed by Scouts on the grave of their own veteran buried at Punchbowl.
"My dad is buried at Punchbowl," said Lorraine Hoaeae, who lives at Makua Alii. "I think about all the veterans who died for our country. "
Lorraine Akana, another volunteer at Makua Alii, said she has come to the center to make lei for 10 years now and plans to keep on coming.
"We want to thank the people who gave their life for us," said the Makiki resident. "Plus we have fun sewing lei."
Akana picked her own flowers and also brought used graduation lei for restringing. One woman who helps out each year made 300 ti leaf lei at home.
"It's a way to give back and it's a good feeling," said Ellen Katoda, a Pearl City resident. "I'm proud to be an American and proud to do something for the people who have given their lives."
In Kāne'ohe, there always is a shortage for the 9,000 graves, said Willie Hirokane, director of the Hawai'i State Veterans Cemetery. Each year, Hirokane rotates sections that will receive the lei. This year he just hopes to receive some lei.
"Some people are disappointed that they don't find a lei on their loved one's graves," Hirokane said. "We do put a flag on every grave. I'm not expecting any lei at all this year."