Some cemeteries on Oahu are running out of space, but the Honolulu City Council took action Wednesday that may provide some relief.

After listening to more than an hour of testimony, council members green-lighted expansion of the 80-acre Hawaiian Memorial Park in Kaneohe by approving Bill 57, an update of the July 2000 Koolaupoko Sustainable Communities plan.

Councilwoman Kymberly Pine said the council has been discussing the new plan since 2009 and received more than 1,800 pieces of testimony this year. It also includes an amendment making it easier for a government agency to take over management of the area’s popular but precarious hiking trail, the Haiku Stairs.

Regarding the cemetery expansion, Pine said she was compelled by testimony from former Gov. Neil Abercrombie, who said Hawaiian Memorial Park was approached to include a 33-acre veteran’s memorial with the understanding that it would be allowed to expand by 156 acres.

People wore shirts in support of expanding Hawaiian Memorial Park at the City Council meeting.

Courtney Teague/Civil Beat

As a compromise, cemetery officials proposed to develop just 28 of the 156 acres it previously expected to use. They also promised to leave a buffer of 150 feet between residences and the expansion area.

Many people in the audience wore green “Support HMP” shirts backing the expansion. Although the nearby Valley of the Temples Memorial Park still has space available, testifiers have said younger generations should have the option of being buried near their relatives.

Opponents worried about protecting the groundwater below and the recent discovery of damselflies, a native species, on cemetery property. Others have argued Hawaiian Memorial Park has enough room and can increase its burial density.

At a Transportation and Planning Committee meeting earlier this month, Vice Chair Pine presided over the bill’s hearing after Chair Ikaika Anderson recused himself. His  family owns a flower shop across the street from Hawaiian Memorial Park.

Correction: Hawaiian Memorial Park is an affiliate of Texas-based Dignity Memorial. (An earlier version of this story misidentified Hawaiian Memorial Park’s affiliation.)

Island-Wide Issue

Although Hawaiian Memorial Park was in the spotlight Wednesday, it’s not the only Oahu cemetery running out of burial space.

Cemeteries in more developed parts of the island are offering more column burials for cremation remains as a way to create more space, said Oahu Mortuary President Scott Power, who said many people have an aversion to seeing cemeteries built near their homes.

Power cited statistics from 2015 that showed nearly three-quarters of Hawaii residents who died preferred cremation. Part of it is a cost issue — having fewer available burial plots drives up the cost.

Structures that hold multiple urns like these at Mililani Memorial Park are becoming more popular in urban areas.

Courtney Teague/Civil Beat

“There’s a much greater density of niches in a building as opposed to just putting them in the ground where you have so many square feet,” Power said.

Unlike those who testified in support of Hawaiian Memorial Park expansion, he said Oahu Mortuary hasn’t heard from people concerned that they won’t be able to be buried with family members. The vaults at his company’s Oahu Cemetery can contain up to 24 urns, but Power said some cemeteries limit the number of urns that can be buried together.

Expanding the downtown cemetery would be difficult, Power said, because it would require purchasing adjacent property and obtaining a zone change. But there is plenty of room for storing urns, he said.

Pete Dilwith, vice president of operations at Mililani Memorial Park, said the cemetery isn’t worried about running out of space anytime soon because it’s located in a more rural area. Two months ago, the park was able to purchase an additional 17 acres, which will yield another 19,000 plots, he said.

A lot of Oahu cemeteries – especially those at churches — are either full or most of their remaining space has been reserved, Dilwith said.

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