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The bride and groom stand before a minister in the historic Kawaiahao Church in downtown Honolulu. Beneath the vaulted ceilings and a giant white cross, couples sometimes pledge to love and cherish each other ‘til death do us part.
Wedding guests who witness such moments sit on row after row of pews in this striking 19th-century church made of large coral slabs.
But if you look deeper, there is a surprising — some say disturbing — element to the proceedings. Beneath the feet of the guests, there is a basement full of baskets, many of which are stacked atop one another. They contain the exhumed human remains of 660 long dead believers, and many of them have been there for years.
The bones, or iwi, believed to date from the 19th century, were dug up from a broad plot of land on the side of the church.
Church leaders say they were surprised to find the bones, even though the plot next to the church was long a cemetery because they believed that all of the bones had been removed in the 1940s. That is when the Likeke Hall, a recreation center, was built. That hall was torn down in 2008 to make room for the new activity center, and in building the new center, they discovered the many bones, carefully wrapped them up, and stacked them in the basement.
So much for resting in peace.
A legal battle over the human remains has left them in a legal limbo, trapped in a strange sort of purgatory.
In December, an intermediate court of appeals panel ruled that the state and church had violated the law by allowing construction work to begin several years ago without first conducting an archaeological survey.
The court ruling could ultimately bring an end to a protracted court battle over the treatment of the ancestral remains. But the ruling has shed little light on what to do with the iwi, or whether the recreation center can eventually be built.
Both Kawaiahao Church and the state have appealed the ruling to Hawaii’s Supreme Court. While the church’s motion was thrown out earlier this month, the court has until later this month to decide on whether to hear the state’s appeal.
Some people might find the whole idea creepy, but for others, including many Native Hawaiians who believe the soul, or mana, remains in the bones, the situation is deeply upsetting.
Meanwhile, the iwi, wrapped in muslin and placed in lauhala baskets sit in the church’s basement. Some of the baskets are stacked in 8-foot wire shelves, two to three per shelf, said Jonathan Scheuer, vice chairman of the Oahu Island Burial Center, who visited the remains in April. In another area in the basement, baskets are stacked some 20 high, one on top of another, he said.
“I’m pleased that the church agreed to allow us to visit the burials,” said Scheuer. “But I did share with them that we didn’t think they were all being kept with the proper level of care.”
The disinterred remains have created an awkward situation at a church that has been called the “Westminster Abbey of the Pacific.” Opened in 1842, it was built by Native Hawaiians who dove into water and swam as far as 20 feet deep to carve out 14,000 slabs of coral reef, each piece weighing around 1,000 pounds, according to the church.
From the beginning, the church was a place of worship for Hawaiian royalty, or alii, and it was an early anchor for the rapid adoption of Christianity in Hawaii.
In 1819, the royalty got rid of the ancient code of conduct known as the kapu system. So when Christian missionaries showed up in Hawaii six months later, they found an island nation without any official religion, said Jeffrey Lyon, a religion professor at the University of Hawaii.
“Many people held on to old aspects of their lives, their beliefs, traditions and prayers,” he said. “But the acceptance of Christianity was pretty whole and thorough.”
The melding of traditional Hawaiian beliefs and western Christian religious practices has not always been seamless.
And even two centuries later, the impassioned debate over exhumed ancestral remains, even if they are in an ostensibly Christian cemetery, highlights the complex questions about the spirituality of Hawaiian Christianity.
On a Sunday afternoon in June, an elderly couple carefully tended to a grave plot of close friends, just a stone’s throw from where the ancestral remains were exhumed. They respectfully arranged leis on the tombstones.
Around them, the small cemetery houses the graves of many prominent families who rose to considerable power; families with names like Bingham and Cooke.
Inside the church, diffused sunlight gently illuminates the empty pews as a warm breeze sweeps in through open windows. American and Hawaiian flags rustle slightly on the mezzanine.
On the walls, the monarchy’s illustrious leaders — including King David Kalakaua, Princess Victoria Kaiulani and Queen Liliuokalani — look out from paintings on the walls. But the windows between the paintings offer a view that is a glaring contrast to the portraits of Hawaiian royalty. It is of a vast empty pit that is surrounded by black tarp. The dirt looks like a harsh lunar landscape, a jarring contrast to the verdant scenery that surrounds it. The pit is a constant reminder that the bones of hundreds of people have been pulled from the earth in favor of a new activity center that is to be equipped with a new kitchen, an office, conference rooms and a social hall.
The church’s pastor, Kahu Curt Kekuna, himself Native Hawaiian, suggested that the Christians whose bones are now in the basement, would have been fine with that fate, as long as it served the church’s mission.
“All those folks that were buried here were Christians. They believed in God,” Kekuna told Civil Beat. “If they were here, contrary to what some people say, those folks would gladly give up their space if it was to promote God in a better way.”
Kekuna hopes to eventually rebury the remains on another part of the church property.
But his flexibility toward moving burials — not to mention his argument that it is in sync with Christian values — has upset some church members and laymen.
In an interview with KITV in 2011, Kekuna highlighted a major difference between Christian and traditional Hawaiian belief systems. “Our religious beliefs are that there is not life in the bones,” he said. “Their lives are in heaven with our lord God.”
“So for us, it’s not only okay, but they gave their lives so that we could have Kawaiahao.”
But some say that the discovery of so many bones, and their removal, is deeply troubling.
“They all deserve respect. They all deserve to rest in peace,” said Dana Naone Hall, who sued the church. She has argued that an archaeological survey should have been completed first.
“It’s ridiculous what happened to them and extremely hurtful to people that iwi kapuna have been treated this way.”
Kai Markell, an officer at the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, offered a more penetrating critique. “The iwi is what houses the mana, or the spiritual power of that individual,” Markell explained during a court hearing in 2011.
“The conduit to communicate with that spirit is through their iwi,” Markell said. “And any type of harm or desecration that comes to that iwi — there’s consequences.”
Such a vision offers a marked contrast to the Christian belief that after death one’s spirit goes to heaven.
But even among Christians, caring for graves has a long tradition. Many states have adopted strong laws against desecrating graveyards and placed stringent controls on the relocation of human remains.
Lyon noted that protecting graves didn’t begin with Christianity, but that Christians sometimes adopted local customs.
“The minister stating that, ‘Well, these are Christian burials,’ is kind of funny to me because traditionally speaking there is no such thing as a Christian burial,” he said.
“There are a lot of traditions that are being trampled on, and saying “these are Christians” is not going to help, I’m afraid.”
Claire Steele, a former board member of the church, said that she rarely attends services anymore because she’s so upset with the church leadership about their handling of the remains.
Steele said that the church initially set out to do the project in a “pono” way, forming a committee to handle the sensitive issue of iwi, if it were to arise. But at some point, things went sour.
The committee strove “to incorporate the Christian with the Hawaiian because that is what the church has done for centuries. But (the church leadership) just went in the total opposite way when they hit the burials,” she said. “To protect themselves, they said, we are Christians. And they were so steadfast on the Christian aspect, and the fact that in Christian beliefs the soul goes up to heaven and that there is no significance in bones.”
The position has left Kekuna on the defensive.
“I’ve never said that the bones have no meaning,” he told Civil Beat. “I’ve always said that I respect their beliefs, but I don’t believe as the (opponents) do. I would never say that I disrespected any Hawaiian, even if I disagree with them.”
If the court hears the state’s appeal, there’s a chance that construction on the multipurpose center will start up again.
Otherwise, the court, church and various parties are going to have to figure out what to do with all of those bones in limbo in the basement.
The court ruling has created a quandary.
The panel ruled that the church was supposed to have done an archaeological inventory survey, but with little clarification on what that means.
This is a problem because, except for a small area, the plot has already been excavated and the bones removed.
The significance of the ruling will likely come down to who has the power to decide what happens to the ancestral bones.
Up until this point, the church has maintained that it is their kuleana (responsibility and privilege) to take care of the remains, and church leadership has been critical of outside protestors trying to dictate the actions of the church.
If “anything is hewa (offensive), it’s when you come to the church, and you start to make these pronouncements about the church, when you’re not even a member of the church,” Kekuna said during an interview with the Honolulu Star Advertiser in 2011. “They don’t know what we’ve done, what we’ve gone through. Yet at the same time, they purport to speak for the church. And that’s hewa. Big time.”
But the court ruling could divert power away from the church to the Oahu Island Burial Council, a state council in charge of grappling with weighty questions about how to treat burial remains that are found in the course of development projects.
The council, which has been critical of how Kawaiahao Church has managed the burials, was largely shut out of discussions about how to handle the remains. Given that a survey was required — even if it can’t be done retroactively — the burial council could be in a position to play a key role in deciding the fate of the bones.
Scheuer said that the burial council has yet to decide what it wants to happen. They could decide that the remains must be put back in the ground from where they came, which could leave the planned activity center in limbo.
In the meantime, Sayaka Blakeney, a Honolulu wedding planner who specializes in Japanese weddings, said that she informs clients about the construction, but not about the bones in the basement beneath the pews. “It’s probably too much information for them,” she said.