story by Marie Carvalho
photos by Dana Edmunds
It was the proverbial dark and stormy night, rain encroaching. The next town was miles away by lonely dirt road. On a trek along the backside of Maui from Hana to Makena, a group of college friends took refuge, pitching their tents leeward of a desolate church, away from the wind… and face-to-face with an old graveyard. As Nanette Napoleon recalls it, the choice had stared them down.
“Wind or graveyard, wind or graveyard? I voted graveyard.”
The group was in for a restless, chicken-skin night, spooking themselves with otherworldly tales. No ghosts came and they lived to see the light of day, but the next morning the sight of flowers on several plots got Nanette thinking: Why would someone travel all that way to put fresh flowers on a grave?
That was 1973. Now a graveyard expert and researcher-for-hire—her business card reads, “Hawai‘i’s History Detective”—Nanette traces her passion for graveyards back to that Maui morning, a spark soon fanned by another cemetery halfway around the world. While backpacking through Europe after college, Nanette followed an unusual tip from fellow guests at a Paris youth hostel and gamely ventured to the city’s famed Pčre Lachaise Cemetery in search of Jim Morrison’s grave. Touring the enormous, labyrinthine grounds en route to the rock ’n‘ roll shrine, she found herself enthralled by magnificent statues and tombstones, art that rivaled anything she’d seen in Europe’s museums
“It just blew me away,” she says.
“I was stunned.”
Returning home, Nanette tucked away her seemingly impractical interest for nearly a decade until, as a newly stay-at-home mother, she began making regular visits to Hawai‘i graveyards, where she recognized the surnames on many tombstones—Campbell, Cooke, Judd—as local street names. Curious, she set out to research them, but came up empty.
“There’s so much historical, cultural and genealogical information on the markers, but I couldn’t find much about them,” she says. “In the meantime, old graveyards were being torn up, disappearing. It was a tragic loss of history—I wanted to capture it in some form for future generations.”