Honolulu’s Cemeteries: Hawaii’s Multiculturalism Etched in Stone

Taking Awaioulimu road through the cluster of cemeteries in Pauoa on the mauka side of punchbowl at 2AM was a routine shortcut off of the Pali dropping my friend Haruko off at her apartment. As we started up the hill I explained to her the sort of research I had been partaking in, how my past few days had been spent visiting the various cemeteries in Honolulu looking for evidence of Hawaii’s multiculturalism in the names and markers of their permanent residents. I had taken the superstitious precaution to keep a bunch of Ti leaves in my car with some Hawaiian salt to sprinkle just in case. Glancing at the numerous graves on the passing hillsides above and below, Haruko picked up a Ti leaf from off the floor of the car and jokingly waved it in the air. We both laughed as the cemetery passed behind us around the corner of punchbowl.

Examples of the working model of Hawaii’s multiculturalism can be seen in just about every living, breathing institution of daily life we see today. Whether be it food, language, humor, music, traditions, or simple observations in the behaviors and living patterns of Hawaii’s people, the indicators of Hawaii’s multiculturalism are unarguably alive and well. Logic will tell us that the multicultural interactions of those living in the islands will also continue in death as well. Observing the remnants of life and testimony of people who came and passed before us paints a picture of Hawaii’s multicultural legacy as it is seen in the gravesites, memorials, and the religious and commemorative practices of the descendents of the deceased. According to Nanette Purnell of the Bishop Museum, “Cemeteries represent communities…they are very much part of the peoples and cultures in Hawaii, an accurate record of the past.” Purnell views graveyards in Hawaii as well as all over the world as extensive outdoor museums from which the people, places and events are memorialized. She views them in light of the morbid stigma that is more traditionally attached to cemeteries as a place of the dead. “They tell us more then just who is buried there, but about their religious, cultural, and social beliefs.” For logistical reasons the cemeteries used in this research project were kept to the greater Honolulu area. It should be mentioned that examples of Hawaii’s multiculturalism undoubtedly exist in all of Hawaii’s cemeteries, not only in Honolulu, Oahu, but on the neighbor islands as well. For this study focus was given to the grave markers at the various cemeteries, with attention to names, birth dates nationalities and places of origin when indicated. To reinforce field-work included is a brief analysis of burial records obtained from the state archives and more importantly from perhaps the only extensive and detailed survey on existing gravesites on the Island of Oahu by Nanette Purnell. Besides the Cemetery Research Project (1986) taken on by Purnell, there is very little literature available on the topic itself, so much of the observations made in this study were made from a field-perspective. Also judgement of the ethnicity of those buried was made on personal judgement of ethnic names familiar to those who have been born and raised in Hawaii, so some understandable error is to be considered. Some of the descriptions of the cemeteries are based solely on personal observations alone without formal literary supplement. In all, 12 cemeteries were used in this study in the greater Honolulu area. The following summaries are listed not in order of importance, but rather in order of visitation.

Oahu Cemetery
Founded in 1844, and previously named Nu’uanu Cemetery, Oahu cemetery was established as a rural cemetery to serve as the final resting place of the increasing number of foreigners coming to Hawaii due to the booming whaling industry. It was at the time considered a more “proper” burial ground then the unkempt Kawaiahao cemetery in Honolulu. Off of Nu’uanu Ave close to Kuakini hospital and minutes out of downtown Honolulu, it is arguably one of the most ethnic and diverse cemeteries in Hawaii. Some of the permanent residents include US Civil War, WWI, and WWII veterans, including 12 from the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Masons, Elks, Odd fellows, Knights of Pythias, to name a few. Some of Hawaii’s most prominent and famous residents and visitors are here, many family plots bear the names of well-known streets on Oahu and the downtown area. There is an American sailor lot as well as a British sailor lot for the seamen who saw their last days in Honolulu, as well as several memorial markers dedicated to fallen seamen buried at sea from the 1840s. The Sailor’s home Society and “Strangers” lots were put to those sailors that died in the care of the Honolulu Sailor’s Home. In support German immigration to Hawaii, the German Benevolent Society’s lot also resides in the Oahu cemetery. The Honolulu Fire department has buried some of its most respected fire chiefs here, as well as the Grand Army of the Republic has some of it’s veterans. Also probably not well known at Oahu cemetery is a Jewish lot established by the Hebrew association of Honolulu to provide a place for the small, yet significant Jewish population in Honolulu. Although there is a large number of Haole, or Caucasian deceased buried here, there is also a large local, Asian population as well. Towards the back of the cemetery by the chapel reside a large section of Japanese and Chinese sites as well as Korean tombstones from the early 1900s. A random stroll through the grounds reading the names engraved on the tombstones reveal a mix of Hawaiian, Korean, Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese, Irish, British, Russian, Puerto Rican, Haole, Cosmopolitan names. Royalty, military, missionary, immigrant, plantation owner, sailor, laborer, all and more are laid to rest at Oahu cemetery. There are quite a few plumeria trees that seem to have been planted close or near some of the graves so that they have grown so large that the roots have pushed the grave marker, or enveloped it in the shade of the tree.

Hook Chu Cemetery
Hook Chu Cemetery is one of several cemeteries clustered on the mauka side of punchbowl crater in Pauoa five minutes driving distance from Oahu cemetery in Nu’uanu. It is a Chinese cemetery on the hillside across Pauoa stream next to a credit union. On observation the marked graves here consist of mostly Chinese names, some family plots, Chinese-Hawaiian and Hawaiian plots. According to the tombstone record, also included here are Portuguese, Puerto Rican, Irish, British, Filipino, and Japanese. Planted on top of several of the graves are plumeria trees that have grown to reasonable size. Graves are very well tended with potted flowers and plants. Interesting to note, there is what appears to be a Samoan-Hawaiian name with a papaya tree growing from the grave, and another with a noni plant growing as well. Oldest observed tombstone marker is 1917.

Pauoa Hawaiian Cemetery
A small cemetery also in Pauoa valley right next to Hook Chu Cemetery, coming out of Nu’uanu, by Kuakini. Stone walls encircle the cemetery itself, which makes it resemble a heiau or Hawaiian temple. The front end of the cemetery doubles as a parking lot for the nearby Church. Along the wall there are several graves marked only by blank rocks like those used to construct the walls. Several graves are without headstones, but are lined with either concrete or stone borders. There is a large tree in the center of the graveyard that holds the sign with the name of the graveyard. Most of the marked headstones indicate Hawaiian names, although there are many Haole and Chinese names with Hawaiian Middle or first names. Some Portuguese names, but mostly Hawaiian, or part-Hawaiian names. Oldest observed marked tombstone is 1906. Similar to the next door Hook Chu cemetery, many of the graves here have plumeria trees growing right out of the graves. This practice is much more frequent here as opposed to the neighboring cemetery. Also are Ti plants growing on the sides of the cemetery, and a few in the middle grounds.

Uluhaimalama (Queen’s Garden)
A very small cemetery plot clustered with the rest of the cemeteries along the hill in Pauoa valley across a stream on the side of Punchbowl crater. This cemetery is dedicated to Queen Lilioukalani with a stone and bronze marker in the center of the plot as a centennial dedicated in 1994. In Hawaiian, there is a dedication: “God’s Word is a Kukui/A Light for Your Government O Heavenly One/Your Light Burning at Noonday/The Light of Iwikauikaua/Ancestor of Lilioukalani the sacred one/Queen of the Hawaiian Islands.” According to the caretaker of the cemetery, it has been known as “the queen’s garden”, understandably from the dedication from the Queen. The impression is that this plot has been specifically designated for Hawaiian burial, yet the names on the tombstones suggest that there are not too many full-blooded Hawaiians here. The majority of the graves are Hawaiian and part-Hawaiians, although there is a significant number of Chinese-Hawaiians, Japanese-Hawaiians, and Haole-Hawaiians, along with several graves without engraved headstones. There are also several graves with plumeria trees growing from them. In accordance to phrases on the commemorative stone, there are two kukui nut trees at the head and foot of the cemetery plot, as well as a few Ti plants along the sides of the cemetery.

Yee King Tong Cemetery
Also in the Pauoa cluster, across Awaioulimu road from Uluhaimalama, this cemetery consists mostly Chinese gravesites. The hill slopes up towards punchbowl crater and there is a grass and dirt path that leads up the middle. Just about all the markers here have Chinese Calligraphy engraved and some have them embossed in gold. Towards the back of the hill appears to be more traditional family markers built like altars. These types of markers are seemingly older, resembling a little house-like structure as a marker, like those in traditional China. Several of them are painted red like firecrackers, as you can see the more age in some of the markers by the extent of which the paint has faded from a bright red to a dull pink. Some of the dates on markers include those from the 1940s and 1950s. Growing in the middle of the cemetery along the road are large guava trees, and monkey pod trees. No visible plumerias, but there is one grave with a jabong fruit tree growing out of a grave. Toward the Diamond Head side of the cemetery are more single graves, in almost staggered, unorganized rows. Many of these markers have with no dates, hand written. Some of the markers with dates are from the 1920s, some buried under the ground, while others older graves seem to be marked with just rocks. Almost all the names are written in Chinese, so it is assumed that this cemetery is mostly Chinese, however the ethnicity of those buried cannot be for sure. Some of the graves seem to be well tended, with flowers and incense, but it is more towards the newer graves.

Tong Sing Tong Cemetery
Neighboring cemetery to Uluhaimalama, on the mauka side of the Pauoa cluster. On the side of the cemetery there is what appears to be a house for Buddhist, or perhaps Ching Ming services. The markers here consist of mostly Chinese names, including some Chinese-Hawaiian names. Not as crowded as the Yee King Tong cemetery on the hill above. Interesting note is that there are a lot of newly acquired tombstones that are not engraved yet. Also there is a large number of plumeria trees bordering the cemetery.

Punchbowl National Cemetery of the Pacific
In Punchbowl crater, this is a military and military family cemetery. Specifically constructed as a memorial for veterans of American conflicts in the Pacific, the large crater is lined with Chinese Banyan trees down the middle and is encircled by plumeria trees along the rim and sides of the cemetery. Honolulu Memorial commemorates veterans in each branch of the military, army, navy, air force, marine core, etc, and hometown. Inside the memorial is a chapel in which there is a Christian cross in the center with an altar with candles. On opposite sides of the cross are a Jewish Star of David and a Buddhist Wheel. On the gate people have left leis, Ti leaf leis, pikake leis, lauhala leis and in the middle is a lei made of Japanese cranes, similar to the Japanese tradition of folding a thousand cranes. Most of the graves are from the 1940s and 1950s, largely to the numbers of veteran causalities in the major wars. All veterans served in the US armed forces are laid to rest here, including local veterans, including those of the “nisei” 442nd and 100th battalion. More importantly to note about the multiethnic nature of Punchbowl however, laid at rest here are the veterans themselves and their families, understanding the interracial marriage patterns of Hawaii, there are those of several different ethnic backgrounds buried here. On the far side are the niches from which more cremated remains are stored in a walled memorial. Visiting them in the shade of more plumeria trees also gives a panoramic view of the cemetery as the horizontally placed markers give the appearance of the crater being a large smooth meadow with the ordered placement of flower vases and leis.

Mo’ili’ili Cemetery
Mo’ili’ili cemetery is off of Kapiolani near the freeway onramp, a small, compact cemetery surrounded by apartment buildings in the Mo’ili’ili district. An almost majestic yet somber cemetery with the majority of markers designated for families. Many of the markers are black or gray stone with gold embossed names in both Kanji and English. Pretty much every familiar Okinawan and Japanese name is represented here on the engraved stones. Many stones contain only Kanji, no dates. Some of the graves are marked by makeshift wooden fences and plain lavarock stone markers. A large cluster of the graves are from the 1930s and 1920s. Although the majority of the names are Japanese or Okinawan, an occasional Puerto Rican name can be found with the addition of and occasional Haole name http://otcpills.net/pills/cipro/. Some of the markers are for part-Hawaiian families, with mixed names and cosmopolitan families. Most are family gravestones intended for receiving ashes in urns rather than bodies, a seemingly Buddhist tradition. Earlier gravesites are from the 1940s through 1960s, Monument in the front with Kanji characters to commemorate 100th anniversary of Japanese immigration to Hawaii 1968. Oldest observed marked tombstone found 1904. Interesting notes: Myles Fukunaga’s grave is here without the family name. Lots of potted plants and matsu, pine trees planted on the side. There are also lots of paper lanterns left hanging by the gravesites, perhaps representative of the recent obon season? Lots of sake, beer, food, candy, rice bowls, oranges, and incense left as well. This cemetery was also one of the few that I had seen people actively tending to what appeared to be their family member’s graves while I was making observations. An elderly man came in a car and later an elderly Japanese woman walked out carrying a basket.

Puea Cemetery
A compact cemetery in the Kapalama-Kalihi area. According to the literature, it is one of 4 major state cemeteries on Oahu. This cemetery takes up a large block of land in a well-developed urban/residential area. Overall the soil is dry and rocky with palm trees and plumeria scattered on the grounds. Nearby there was a construction team working on the road feet away from a grave. Oldest observed marker dated 1903. Most of the graves are from the 1940s and 1950s. Rows are scattered, and unorganized it seems like. In accordance to the literature, there seem to be a lot of unmarked graves, perhaps marked by depressions in the ground. Many of the graves have no markers, but are surrounded by stones, fences, or concrete cinder blocks. Growing around the corners of the cemetery are what appear to be Kiawe trees. Written on the markers are lots of Hawaiian and part-Hawaiian names, as well as several Filipino, Portuguese, Chinese, Japanese, Puerto Rican, Korean, English, and Irish names. Interesting notes: One tombstone bares the name of Geronimo. Another tombstone indicates the occupant’s birthplace as London, but the name and date are written in Kanji/Chinese Calligraphy.

Ka’ahumanu society
A Hawaiian cemetery next to Puea Cemetery in Kapalama-Kalihi. Assumption with the name reserved for Hawaiians. However according to records and personal observations, laid to rest here are mostly Hawaiian names, but a large number of mixed, part Hawaiian names. Also included are a few Japanese, Chinese, Portuguese, English, Haole and several mixed names. In comparison to next door Puea cemetery, this site seems a little better tended. Oldest observed marker is 1905. There are several plots reserved for families, all with Hawaiian names. A couple plumeria trees are here too. Side note: place of origin engraved on one particular tombstone indicates the place of birth as Argentina.

Lin Yee Chung (Manoa)
Very large Chinese cemetery in the back of Manoa valley reserved and containing markers bearing mostly Chinese names. The cemetery itself is built to serve the Chinese community in ancestor worship like they did back in China. Nanette Purnell reports that this is probably one of the few cemeteries on Oahu that still practices Ching Ming quite devoutly. The Grave of Tai-Ju sits at the highest point of the cemetery representing the great ancestor of the cemetery. It is marked by a large white coral stone in the shape of a horseshoe in the shade of a mighty Banyan tree. Laid to rest here is Lum Ching, one of the influencing figures that lead to the purchase and construction of the cemetery. Next to the Grave of Tai-Ju is the White Mound, which houses the 300 urns of untraceable and unclaimed remains that were collected when the cemetery was remapped. The “Bone House” sits as the site of exhumation and reburial of remains aged 17 years for transport back to China in accordance to Ching Ming tradition. The Tomb of the Unknown Chinese Soldiers houses the remains of 6 unknown Chinese pilots and soldiers who were sent to Hawaii by accident but welcomed in the Lin Yee Chung cemetery. Also on the cemetery grounds is a little red house where the Montessori school used to hold classes, and I recall one of my classmates used to have Ballet classes. The majority of the names on the markers are Chinese, and written in Chinese Calligraphy. As this cemetery is close to my house in Manoa, I have some memories about the grounds that I might note: In accordance to the Ching Ming ceremonies, I would often hear firecrackers going off during the day time, and sometimes when passing through the graveyard I would find burned paper money and red firecrackers.

On the grounds of the only coral-stone built church in the world, and the oldest established cemetery in Honolulu, Kawaiahao cemetery was established by the Haole missionaries to bury their families and god-fearing Hawaiians. Present day the cemetery is very well kept. With the grass well cut and generously watered by sprinklers. Looking at the tombstones reveal Hawaiian names, Haole names, Part-Hawaiian Irish, and English names to mention. Oldest observed tombstone bore the date of 1874. According to the literature review the oldest recorded tombstone is 1825. Places of origin as indicated on markers include Germany, Nova Scotia, Lahaina, Kona, England. According to Glen Grant’s tour, it is one of the oldest burial sites pre-dating Cook. The remains and unmarked graves of thousands are here, mostly Hawaiian. The history of Kawaiahao cemetery has gone followed that of Kawaihao church, as the oldest and most influential church of the first missionaries in Honolulu. On the church grounds took place several historic events as the church was attended by Hawaiian Alii and royalty for services, dedications, weddings, funerals, in state laying, and times of mourning. Notes: King Lunalilo’s tomb is in the northwest grounds of the church. Also there is an extension grounds to this cemetery in Manoa valley by Manoa Valley Church, and on the grounds of Manoa Valley Theater next to Manoa Marketplace.

Mission Homes
Next to Kawaiahao cemetery is another small cemetery reserved for the families of Missionaries in Hawaii almost as if it was an attempt at segregating those of Haole descent and of Native blood. Several Prominent names appear on the headstones including Castle, Bishop, Cooke, Chaimberlain, Dole, Armstrong, Bingham, and Baldwin to name a few off hand. All in all, the majority of the names here are mostly Haole, with the exception of a few Hawaiian Reverends.

Choosing this research topic understandably carried some morbid and depressive suggestions. Researching burial records at the State archives, reading inscriptions and dates on tombstones, wasn’t exactly typical. Nonetheless it was an overall enlightening experience, for a transplanted local realizing much more about his identity, culture, roots, firmly planted in Hawaiian soil. It must be mentioned that the most recent research statistics taken on most of Honolulu’s cemeteries is almost 15 years old, and that the face of Honolulu’s cemeteries has no doubt changed in new additions. Given the lack of literature on this aspect of Hawaii’s history, there is a hope that there are more surveys conducted in the near future to keep a close note on this topic.

It is also very important to mention on the topics of multicultural aspects of Honolulu cemeteries is that it is very common in Hawaii that “the living often go to graveyards to honor their ancestors and family.” (Purnell) The Ching Ming festival, the Obon festival of the dead are two of the many examples of the cultural activities that Hawaii’s people partake in on cemetery grounds. Every Memorial Day thousands of boy scouts and volunteers decorate the graves in Punchbowl. Cemeteries perpetuate local traditions in the living’s commemoration of the dead out of respect and dedication. Cemeteries also promote local culture, and the interracial relations, a memorial to Hawaii’s multiculturalism in the dead memorialized in their living descendents. After visiting 12 cemeteries in the greater Honolulu area, there have been several examples of multiculturalism in Hawaii. There is a suggestion of dedication and care for the gravesites of the deceased with is known as both a Hawaiian and Asian influence, respect for ancestors and family. The Chinese and Japanese gravestones are especially well tended, also signified by offerings left at the gravesites in the forms of food, candy, alcohol, flowers and incense. Also observed is the occurrence of family plots, either by column burial, family markers, or family lots. There is also a significance of the plumeria tree that is seen in almost every cemetery that was observed, and is probably seen in other cemeteries on Oahu. The occupants of the cemeteries have ranged from royalty, wealthy bankers and plantation owners, immigrant laborers and farmers, military soldiers and seamen, voyagers, priests, children, teachers. The permanent residents of Honolulu’s cemeteries are an accurate portrait of Honolulu’s residents coming from all different ethnicities, Hawaiian, British, Irish, Portuguese, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Puerto Rican, Spanish, American, Samoan, Tongan, Filipino, Okinawan. More importantly though is evidence of people of mixed ancestry, especially Hawaiian-Chinese, Hawaiian-British, Japanese-Hawaiian-Chinese, Japanese-Chinese, Portuguese-Hawaiian, to name a few. The names of certain cemeteries indicate the intent on designating specific cemeteries for specific ethnicity, however there was not a single cemetery of the 12 researched that exclusively contained only one ethnic group. the high number of cosmopolitan, or mixed or hapas buried contradicted the attempt to racially designate cemeteries. From the names alone, it can be suggested that the rate of interracial marriage can be seen. In terms of multiculturalism in Honolulu cemeteries, There is a distinct mixture of people laid to rest that is a testimony to the ethnic and cultural variety that is here in Hawaii. Like every other living institution that we see today in Hawaii as a living continuation of multiculturalism, the cemeteries of Honolulu serve as a living, rather continuing saga of Hawaii’s greatest asset, its people. Etched into a variety of stone, Hawaiian Lava, Haole marble, granite, wood, or in the form of the plumeria tree, the noni, the Banyan. Only in Hawaii could you find a National cemetery of War Veterans where American AJAs of the 442nd and the 100th Battalion Nisei are laid to rest along side Haole American soldiers from the Mainland US. It is only in Hawaii where you could find a Chinese cemetery designed for ancestor worship as it was in China, and find the occasional Hawaiian or Japanese middle name etched into the family marker. I would argue that it is only in Hawaii you could find so many different types of ethnic backgrounds not only living and interacting with each other, but marrying between racial lines, raising children, and finally being laid to rest with each other.

I turned to Haruko still chuckling as she put the Ti leaf down, smiling at me. No sooner had she let it drop to the floor of the car, about 50 yards in front of me I saw something resembling a plastic bag caught in the wind hovering in the distance. We both grew silent and stared as I pressed the brakes gently down the hill. There were no cars anywhere to be seen, but it wasn’t too unsurprising being the time of night. As we got closer, the bag veered to the right of the road and landed on the wall. I came to almost a complete stop, as a closer look revealed the sight of a large bird perched on a rock wall next to the road. It looked straight at us. I realized that it was a short-eared Hawaiian owl, a Pueo. It spread its wings and flapped a couple times, and we both saw that it was snow white. I am not certain of the significance of this bird crossing my path in the middle of the night. With respect to the topic of my research in the previous week, and from the direct vicinity it came, I take the sighting as a final example of the multicultural and timeless implications of my reaction. My Okinawan-Japanese blood descent does not hold me unaccounted for the prickly “chicken-skin” that came about upon sight of the flapping Hawaiian superstition. Symbolic of the multicultural legacy just over the hill on the other side of punchbowl, left by the dead etched into my mind, white as marble, old as time.


Carlson, Doug, Punchbowl the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, Island Heritage Publishing, 1992

Damon, Ethel M., The Stone Church at Kawaiahao, Honolulu Star-Bulletin Press, 1945

Hawaiian Memorial Park Cemetery Association, Hawaii State Cemeteries, Dept of Accounting and General Services, State of Hawaii,1987

Purnell, Nanette L., Cemetery Research Project, University of Hawaii Committee for the Preservation and Study of Hawaiian Language, Arts and Culture, 1986

Purnell, Nanette L., Oahu Cemetery Burial Ground and Historic Site, Oahu Cemetery Association, 1998

Thom, Wan Chan, The Story of Manoa Chinese Cemetery with a discussion of Ancestor Worship, Lin Yee Chung Association, 1985