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Aging cemetery provides Native Hawaiian genealogical details

Deteriorating Honolulu cemetery provides Native Hawaiians with links to ancestry

Aging cemetery provides Native Hawaiian genealogical details

HONOLULU (AP) -- Sarah Kailikele was 84 years old when she died on Aug. 14, 1909, according to the inscription on her toppled tombstone.

University of Hawaii students learning how to preserve cemeteries Wednesday and Thursday were able to glean that she's likely the oldest person buried at Pauoa Hawaiian Cemetery, a small, mostly neglected collection of graves in one of Honolulu's older neighborhoods.

"She lived under seven ruling monarchs," said Nanette Napoleon, a freelance historical researcher whose work focuses on cemeteries. "That's incredible." At the time, a person in Hawaii typically would live to be about 60, she said.

Cemeteries can provide a wealth of information for people tracing their Native Hawaiian genealogy, Napoleon said. But few or no burial records were kept at many of these 19th-century cemeteries, Napoleon said. The vast majority of Hawaii's 300 cemeteries are like Pauoa's, where a chapel once stood near where a monkeypod tree now looms tall and wide.

"We had an oral tradition," she said of Native Hawaiian culture. "It's very important to know who you are. Who your ancestors were makes you who you are."

The multidisciplinary summer seminar is an effort to teach the community how to preserve neighborhood cemeteries. While the students learn to repair grave markers, they're mapping out the graves and recording inscription information to put into a database that people can use as another resource to trace genealogy.

Before starting their work, the group held hands in a circle to pray and chant in Hawaiian as a gesture of respect.

Not far from Kailikele's grave, Richard Miller showed seminar participants how to repair a grave marker that was found cracked in half. It belongs to James K. Hue, who was 40 years old when he died in 1916.

Miller, who repairs and preserves grave markers and tombs at Molokai's Kalaupapa National Historical Park, showed them how to use an epoxy substance to meld the pieces together.

The problem with Kailikele's tombstone is that it's covered in lichen, he said: "It will cover the inscription and eventually erode it."

The students determined there are 113 people buried in the cemetery and were able to identify some that had no obvious markers. In one large plot, there's only one grave marker, but they could tell that at least five others are buried there. Upon closer inspection, there are names faintly visible in the concrete blocks delineating the plot. There are aging plants marking the five others. "Did they just not have money? Usually that's the case," Napoleon said.

Fulbright scholar and archaeologist Alja Zorz, who is participating in the seminar, used shaving cream to help make out some names: Steven, Lihooe and Kekela. Shaving cream fills in the spaces where the names are carved, making them easier to read.

Nowadays there are websites for tracing ancestry, said Noelle Kahanu, assistant specialist in public humanities and Native Hawaiian programs in the university's American studies department. "But there's nothing that replaces being in a cemetery. ... Nothing replaces your 'kuleana' to the gravesites," she said using the Hawaiian word for responsibility.


Follow Jennifer Sinco Kelleher at .

Updated : 2021-09-26 18:45 GMT+08:00