Cemetery historian Nanette Napoleon and I are up at Oahu Cemetery cleaning the gravestone of our friend Glenn Woo’s late uncle, Peter Woo — a little boy who died in 1900.

Originally, we heard Peter died of fright when his parents took him to a circus and a monkey jumped on him. It turns out this often-repeated story might not be true because the mold-darkened inscription on Peter’s gravestone says he was born on Nov. 16, 1889, and he died only seven months later.

Peter’s niece, Diane Soo Hoo, says she doubts he was scared to death by a monkey. “A seven-month-old baby would have been too young to know what a monkey was and that you should be afraid of one.”

Denby at Peter Woo's grave tombstone cemetery

This article’s author, Denby Fawcett, helping to clean the tombstone.

Nanette Napoleon

Cemetery historian Napoleon has been hired by the Woo family to refurbish Peter’s headstone. I am helping Nanette as we wipe Gillette foaming shaving cream on the marble. Nanette says shaving cream is a good cleaning agent for graves because the mild soapy foam is gentle on marble.

Nanette could do the cleaning by herself but she invited me along for the company. As we rub the foam into the marble, we talk about the topic of death in Hawaii today.

When baby Peter died more than a century ago, it was simple. The deceased were buried in a cemetery with a marker placed over their grave.

Today, 70 percent of Hawaii’s dead are cremated and there are many options — and much confusion — when it comes to what to do with cremated remains.

Ashes are spread on the grounds of private schools, in the ocean and alongside favorite hiking trails. People commingle their remains with those of their pets.

Businesses usually not associated with death now advertise their services. On its website, Hawaii Ash Scatterings offers cocktail and pupu cruises off Waikiki to scatter ashes with all kinds of additional bells and whistles for more money, including white dove and butterfly releases and a Hawaiian conch shell blower.

I thought it might be interesting to look into what is allowed when scattering cremated remains because I got so much incorrect information recently after my youngest brother Kam died.

“It is a delicate topic, which is why people often lack clarity,’ said Scott Power, the chief operating officer of Oahu Cemetery and Crematory.

Here are some things I found out that may be helpful to you someday.

Cremated ashes basically can be scattered almost anywhere as long as you do it with discretion.

The Department of Health says, “Generally speaking, no environmental permit is required for the scattering of cremated ashes on land, sea and from the air, but this should be done discreetly and some distance away from the general public.”

And of course, if you do a scattering on private property, you should ask permission from the landowner.

Also, you may not disperse ashes in a state forest reserve or watershed area.

When my brother died, we were wrongfully told we would have to go a mile out to sea to scatter his ashes. The long-distance rule at sea applies only to the rare instances when people bury a human body in the ocean. The State Division of Boating and Ocean Recreation says you must go beyond the three-mile limit to commit a corpse to the sea.

“…And measures should be taken to ensure that the remains sink to the bottom rapidly and permanently.”

With cremated remains, the only time the boating division requires a permit for scattering is for a large event.

Deborah Ward, the spokeswoman of the Department of Land and Natural Resources, says this is to assure that an ash-scattering event involving multiple canoes, boats and people on surfboards does not conflict with other ocean users.

For such large gatherings, the organizers of the ceremony must contact the Division of Boating and Ocean Recreation 30 days in advance to obtain a “marine event permit,” which will be issued at no cost.

It is helpful to know that cremated remains cause no health risk.

Another new item is a mini-urn in which to keep some of the remains of a loved one at home or in the office.

Oahu Cemetery’s Scott Power says some people mistakenly think cremated remains are black, oily ashes when in truth the remains are sterile fragments of bone, which by law must be ground up for 30 seconds.

After cremation, all that is left of the body are calcium deposits. The fragments look like crushed white coral and are completely harmless.

When I asked Power what’s new with remains, he said jewelry. He said some companies are selling little lockets “ so you can carry a little bit of mom or dad around your neck.”

That seems funny. But my friend Lorna Loungway reminds me it is similar to the old-fashioned custom of carrying a piece of hair of a loved one in a locket.

Power says another new item is a mini-urn in which to keep some of the remains of a loved one at home or in the office.

And when it comes to cremated remains, here is a post- 9/11 complication you might not have thought of, courtesy of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). When you carry cremated remains on a plane they must go through a regular TSA screening and, depending on your urn, the remains could be rejected as carry-on luggage.

If the container is opaque and the TSA agents are unable to see into it, agents may make you return to the airline counter to find out if your airline will allow the cremated remains on board as checked luggage. Some airlines don’t permit cremated remains in suitcases. The TSA says it’s best to check beforehand.

The TSA Blog justifies the screening saying, “… crematory remains are one of the many sensitive items that could be exploited by someone wanting to conceal a dangerous item.”

Going back to Peter Woo’s headstone, which I am helping to restore for his loving relatives who live far away: Nanette has just gone down to the 7-Eleven store to buy more Gillette foaming cream to help us remove stubborn mold on the headstone.

When she returns, we walk by the graves of some of Hawaii’s most famous citizens, checking out the names on the headstones, wondering what it was like to live in the islands then.

Who would have thought, back in Peter’s day more than a century ago, that funeral practices would become the way they are now with almost all of Hawaii’s dead not buried but cremated, and their remains scattered everywhere from football fields at private schools to the top of Mauna Kea volcano?

And who could have imagined government officials using x-ray machines to examine urns holding cremated remains at airports in search of dangerous weapons.

Never mind expensive sunset ceremonies at sea to disperse ashes followed by lavish buffets on board with roast beef carving stations and Champagne toasts.

It may have been simpler in Honolulu during Peter’s short life, but at least nowadays you don’t have to worry about being frightened by the unfamiliar sight of a monkey.

Today we have seen almost everything.

About the Author