A hidden history of Oahu's forgotten graveyards

A hidden history of Oahu's forgotten graveyards
Nanette Napoleon
Nanette Napoleon
Nanette Napoleon and Chris Tanaka
Nanette Napoleon and Chris Tanaka

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - There are over sixty cemeteries on Oahu.  However, there is no master list of them all, and the people interred.

Modern cemeteries and those of distinction are well cataloged, but for every Punchbowl, there are handfuls of those that are anonymous, unnoticed, and unknown.

They are Oahu's forgotten graveyards.  Much of what is known of and about them lies with a single individual, Nanette Napoleon.

Napoleon is a historian, author, and researcher who set about in the 1980's to catalog every graveyard she could find.  Her travels led her to some interesting places, places the ordinary person would never encounter, or does encounter without knowing it.

She took us on a tour of just a few such places.

We began in Kahuku.  The community is known for its strong sensibilities, the Red Raiders and the windfarm.  We parked at the Kahuku golf course, then trekked past it.

Alone on the coast was an old wooden fence.  Contained within its borders were dozens of headstones scribed in Japanese.

"This is a typical Japanese graveyard--plantation era. When they came they didn't have much money, so they couldn't afford anything expensive like granite.  So they used what was natural, lava rock, something natural in the ground," Napoleon explained.

Our trip continued across the north shore to Waialua.

The St. Michael's Church cemetery lies in the midst of cane country.  The only marker for it is the ruins of St. Michael's church.

"The original church was started in the 1800's.  It got burned in a fire and they moved the church and they abandoned the ruins and abandoned the cemetery pretty much."

The ruins and cemetery are mirror images of one another; damaged, yet beautiful, haunting, yet peaceful.

The graveyard's occupants are a mix of parishioners and plantation workers.

Nanette next takes us to a worn down old graveyard she says she receives the most inquiries about.  It's tucked neatly between the Moanalua Freeway and Kamehameha highway in Aiea, just Ewa of Aloha Stadium.

It is the Aiea Plantation cemetery.

"All of this urbanization came long after the cemetery was established" Nanette says, waving her arms at the surrounding roadways and structures.  It is a closed cemetery, which means it is no longer open for new internments.

The headstone of one of its occupants states he, Raymond Torres, lived to the age of 119.

Our final stop is at the Windward Mall, for perhaps the most unusual cemetery of them all.  It is the St. Ann's Church cemetery, and it's located smack dab in the middle of the Windward Mall's parking lot.

"No one sees this because there's fencing all the way around and it's up on a hill, so the cars are parked below the fence line," said Nanette.

When the land was developed, a deal was struck to protect the cemetery.  It is home to some families of prominence, namely the Zuttermeisters of hula fame.

For Nanette, it's imperative that their stories are told, even more so that the others are told too.

"It just struck me that cemeteries were beautiful, historic places and cultural resources.  It has been my mission, my passion for the last 35 years."

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