Issue 9.2: April/May 2006

Remains of the Day

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 Père 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
and cathedrals.

“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.”

Grave pursuit: Nanette
Napoleon, on the grounds of

O‘ahu Cemetery.

In 1985, Nanette founded The Cemetery Research Project and began to catalog Hawai‘i’s cemeteries, first on O‘ahu, then Maui, Moloka‘i and Lana‘i. Chances are she’s seen most Island tombstones at least once, physically documenting them—their names, their locations—in a process that took years each on O‘ahu and Maui County; she estimates that it will take at least three more years to complete Hawai‘i island, which has more graveyards—many small and poorly documented—than all the other Hawaiian islands combined. And as she’s researched and written about cemeteries, she’s emerged as a strong advocate for their preservation.

One lazy morning, wanting to learn for myself just what graveyards can teach, I set out on one of Nanette’s guided tours. She seems at home as we meander through O‘ahu Cemetery, among graves dressed in brilliant red ginger blossoms. The old Nu‘uanu site has seen a city grow up around it since its founding during the 19th-century “rural cemetery movement,” when graveyards were designed as park-like social settings replete with carriage paths and fountains. To the contemporary mind, cemetery-as-rec-center seems odd, but gazing toward the hills that rise above the valley, I get an inkling of what early planners must have wanted for us.

“Graveyards,” Nanette says, “were created so people could connect with the dead in a tangible way.” As if on cue, we come across a baseball signed by a Japanese team and laid at the plot of Alexander Cartwright, the so-called “father of modern baseball,” who set the bases at ninety feet apart and the game at nine innings.

If you want a glimpse of Hawai‘i’s cultural history, you’ll find it at O‘ahu Cemetery—from Native Hawaiian roots to the later influences of Korean, Portuguese, Scottish, Jewish and other immigrants whose divergent paths ultimately led them to the same far-flung islands… and to a shared resting place. Their burial traditions came with them: Celtic crosses for Irish graves; offerings of food or paper “spirit money” on Chinese plots to care for ancestors in the afterlife; Japanese haka (graves) with petite, house-like markers where ashes reside, a this-world comfort for the next.

Strolling the old promenade with Nanette, it’s easy to see why she considers cemeteries to be places of deep beauty. From striking granite and sugar marble stones to porcelain photographs etched by transfer processes, to rare, shady trees—the graveyard is both visual delight and respite, gracefully recording our social values and ties. Hand-carved design motifs tell stories in shorthand: lilies for purity, cherubs for children, a chiseled Rock of Ages for spiritual aid. “FLT” reads a linked symbol on many headstones: friendship, love, truth—insignia of the Odd Fellows, one of many fraternal organizations that predated modern labor unions.

An offering of the grave of Alexander
Cartwright, the "father of modern baseball"

Behind each stone are extraordinary historical footnotes. Take Maria Kahanamoku, younger sister of legendary surfer and Olympic swimmer Duke Kahanamoku. She died at 25, engaged to an Italian noble who went back to Italy and returned with a life-size statue to adorn her grave—it’s a startling likeness of Maria, with intricate lace and roses at her feet. Pausing before the statue, Nanette notes that its Italian
origins hint at another layer of history: Much of the funerary sculpture produced in America during the early 20th century was carved by Italian immigrants who worked the marble quarries.

It’s love of such details that inspired Nanette’s current role as professional history sleuth, unearthing past stories—such as the murder of a ship captain—that sometimes echo iconic ghost tales. A recent PBS project had her on the trail of the infamous Massie case in 1930s Hawai‘i, an assignment that struck close to home: Nanette’s own grandfather sat on the jury for the notorious murder trial, which turned out to be Clarence Darrow’s last run as lead defense attorney. “It was a fascinating case,” she says. “It involved all levels of government and almost led to Hawai‘i not becoming a state.”

The girl who once lost sleep in an old Maui graveyard recently celebrated her fiftieth birthday with fifty friends, sipping cocktails on a lanai… in O‘ahu Cemetery. Her guests enjoyed dinner with sides of ghost stories and an interactive murder mystery skit that began, appropriately, with a dark and stormy night. As Nanette recalls how bagpipe music floated eerily from amid darkened tombstones and a lone musician emerged into the glow of floating Japanese memorial lanterns, it’s clear that her birthday bash was a fitting tribute to a woman who’s dedicated her own life to preserving the markers that document the lives of others. Not wanting the good vibe to fade, that year she completed her own watershed “Fabulous 50 Challenge,” accomplishing fifty spirited tasks: relearning how to surf, taking up taiko drumming—and yes, lunching with a friend in a graveyard.

And those fresh-cut flowers that moved her so long ago? “I’ve come to understand how important the afterlife is in many cultures,” Nanette says. “The connection with ancestors doesn’t stop when they die.”

Then, citing the Native Hawaiian belief that na iwi (the bones) retain a person’s spiritual essence for all eternity, she adds, “I’ve become more interested in all things beyond.” HH