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Like most of the world, there are cemeteries throughout Hawaiʻi that have fallen to neglect. University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa students are doing their part to preserve an important part of history, but there’s more to it than that.

“Some people, they believe in after life, so we still take care of our kūpuna once they die,” said UH Mānoa student Mohuhano “Mo” Tuikolongahau.

Through a historic preservation program at UH Mānoa’s American studies department, students, community members and preservation experts are working at cemeteries like Maʻemaʻe Chapel Cemetery in Nuʻuanu to learn how to document, clean and perform repairs on aging and damaged gravestones. They are also contributing valuable information to existing archives and maps while getting valuable, hands-on field experience.

Students use shaving cream to better read the inscriptions on gravestones
Students use shaving cream to better read the inscriptions on gravestones

“What we’re looking at really are cleaning headstones, straightening the curbing, doing things that really ensure that these cemeteries are protected for generations to come,” said Department of American Studies Assistant Specialist Noelle Kahanu.

The large majority of gravestones at Maʻemaʻe Chapel Cemetery belong to Native Hawaiians and other families with deep ties to the Nuʻuanu area. Some of the older gravestones date back to the mid to late 19th century. Through their field work, students develop a deeper connection and appreciation of the community.

“It’s really important for the community basically because they can come and trace their genealogy,” said Tuikolongahau.“You’ll see on the headstones that people were born at Maʻemaʻe, they passed away in Niolopa, so this is a community graveyard,” added Kahanu.

For many students, preserving gravestones is their way of showing care and respect for those who have passed by taking care of the sites where they have been laid to rest.

“It’s really a cultural and significant place that preserves a connection, and whether it’s a connection to you or for someone else, it’s really that focus of bringing that connection to light,” said UH Mānoa student Natalie Park.

Headed by UH Mānoa American Studies professor Bill Chapman, the Historic Preservation Program brings together students, faculty and historic preservation experts to give students hands-on experience in community-based initiatives.

This summer’s program brought together experts such as Nanette Napoleon of the Hawaiʻi Cemetery Research Project and Richard Miller of Kalaupapa National Historic Park. The project was funded through a grant from the Hawaiʻi Council for the Humanities and was conducted in collaboration with Kaumakapili Church.

The public is invited to attend a panel presentation entitled “Community Initiatives: Preserving Our Historic Cemeteries” on Saturday, June 6 at Kaumakapili Church Community Center, 9:30–12:30.

Historic cemetery preservation

student taking notes over a gravestone

For more photos, visit the UH Mānoa Historic Preservation Program Facebook page.

—By Kapiʻolani Ching

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