Denby Fawcett: Is The Funeral Of Abigail Kawananakoa The Last Hawaiian Royal Burial? - Honolulu Civil Beat

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About the Author

Denby Fawcett

Denby Fawcett is a longtime Hawaii television and newspaper journalist, who grew up in Honolulu. Her book, Secrets of Diamond Head: A History and Trail Guide is available on Amazon. Opinions are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat’s views.

The public ceremony to commemorate the death of “Her late Royal Highness Princess Abigail Kinoiki Kekaulike Kawananakoa” was announced in full-page ads Wednesday and Sunday in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.

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“I think her funeral is a great honor. Royal funerals are expensive. They rarely happen. It is an opportunity for people to come together to share a common respect for the Hawaiian monarchy,” Ralph Thomas Kam said in a phone interview. Kam is a historian, scholar and the author of “Death Rites and Hawaiian Royalty: Funerary Practices in the Kamehameha and Kalakaua Dynasties, 1819-1953.”

Kawananakoa, known to her friends as Kekau, will lie in state in the throne room of Iolani Palace from 2 until 8 p.m. this coming Sunday in a ceremony open to the public. The next day, Jan. 23, there will be an invitation-only funeral at the Royal Mausoleum at Mauna Ala in Nuuanu at 1:30 p.m. The funeral ceremony at Mauna Ala — closed to the public because of space limitations in the mausoleum’s chapel — will be broadcast live by Oiwi TV.

Kawananakoa died with her wife, Veronica Kawananakoa, by her side in her Nuuanu home Dec. 11 at age 96 from medical complications from a stroke she suffered in 2017.

Questions about the legitimacy of calling Kawananakoa a princess or the state’s unusual act of granting her permission to have her own new tomb at Mauna Ala have been brushed aside in the midst of a current outpouring of public appreciation for her love for Hawaii and her generous financial donations to help Native Hawaiian causes.

Courtesy Nannette Napoleon. It is the stairs leading down to the Kalakaua Crypt
The stairs leading down to the Kalakaua crypt, where Abigail Kawananakoa initially hoped to be interred. Courtesy: Nannette Napoleon

Kawananakoa was of alii descent, related to Kauai’s last king, Kaumualii, and Queen Kapiolani yet she was not a royalty decreed princess as required by the laws of the Hawaiian Kingdom. However in her lifetime she did little to dissuade people from addressing her as princess.

She was born Abigail Kinoiki Kekaulike Ellerbrock, the daughter of Lydia Liliuokalani Kawananakoa and William Jeremiah Ellerbrock, a car dealer who worked for Royal Hawaiian Sales Co. in downtown Honolulu. Her parents divorced after two years of marriage and she was legally adopted by her maternal grandmother, Abigail Campbell Kawananakoa, the wife of Prince David Kawananakoa. Her grandmother changed the little girl’s surname to Kawananakoa.

She inherited a fortune from the estate of her great-grandfather, James Campbell, one of Hawaii’s largest landowners — a bequest estimated to have grown today to $300 million to $400 million.

Even though Kawananakoa lacked the royal criteria for burial at Mauna Ala, she received permission from the Department of Land and Natural Resources in 2013 after much controversy and protest to be the only person permitted to build a new single occupant tomb at the mausoleum.

Critics at a public hearing at the time brought up concerns it would open the door for other Hawaiian alii to seek permission for their own tombs at Mauna Ala, and that that the state taxpayers would get stuck for the maintenance and rebuilding of Kawananakoa’s tomb should it be damaged.

Cemetery historian Nanette Napoleon says allowing Kawananakoa to build her own new tomb will prompt others with supposedly royal claims to seek similar burials for themselves.

Historian Kam agrees. He said, “I think it would be fair to expect petitions to the state from alii descendants in the future who wish to be buried at Mauna Ala.”

Hawaiian Royal Mausoleum State Monument.
David Kalakaua Kawananakoa had been considered “the last royal burial” in 1953. His niche is on the left side of the Kalakaua crypt. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

The precedent of allowing only official royals to be buried at Mauna Ala was already broken when the only son of Kekau’s grandmother, David Kalakaua Kawananakoa, was allowed to be buried in the Kalakaua crypt at Mauna Ala in 1953. At the time, his interment was heralded as “the last royal burial.”

The Kalakaua crypt is where Abigail Kawananakoa had initially hoped to be interred with her mother and grandmother, but it was full after David Kalakaua Kawananakoa took the last spot in the crypt.

He was allowed to be in the Kalakaua crypt even though he lacked a royal title and despite the fact he had been incarcerated for three and a half years in Oahu Prison after admitting to causing the death in October 1937 of his 23-year-old common-law wife, Arvilla Kinslea. The young woman bled to death in his Waikiki residence after the two of them allegedly got into a drunken fight during a party he was hosting.

At the time of Kinslea’s death, Kawananakoa was already on five years probation after he was held responsible for the death of another young woman, Felicity Connors, who died in a car crash in 1932, allegedly caused by his reckless driving down the Nuuanu Pali road.

Interestingly, the deaths of the young women were not mentioned in local news reports about David Kalakaua Kawananakoa’s elaborate funeral services at Mauna Ala. The information was featured only in mainland newspapers including the Oakland Tribune, which ran the headline: “Death Closes Career of Hawaiian Prince.”

Abigail Kawananakoa’s title of princess is honorific, not royally designated. The last royal princes named by King David Kalakaua by official decree were his nephews, David Kawanakoa who was Abigail’s grandfather, and David’s brothers, Edward Abnel Kealiiahonui and Jonah Kuhio Kalanianaole.

Abigail Kawananakoa with Veronica Worth at trial.
Kekau Kawananakoa died with her wife, Veronica Kawananakoa, by her side in her Nuuanu home Dec. 11 at age 96. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2018

According to law, royal titles had to be decreed by a king or queen and could not be passed on by heredity to descendants or spouses. By the time Abigail Kekau Kawananakoa was born it would have been impossible to get an official royal title because the Hawaiian Kingdom was overthrown in 1893.

Yet she liked to toy with the idea of having a claim to the throne. In an interview with Honolulu Magzine in 1986, she said if the monarchy had survived, “the line of succession would have made her cousin Edward Kawananakoa the ruler, not her, as he was the eldest child of the oldest sibling of King Kalakaua.

“So it would have gone directly to Edward. Of course, I would be the power behind the throne, there’s no question about that,’” she said.

In a news report in February 1994 in the Honolulu Advertiser, Kekau Kawananakoa was quoted as saying talk of succession to the throne of Hawaii was “all speculation but if you ask if it is possible if it could have come down to me the answer is yes, it is very possible.”

Kekau said the chance of her rising to the throne was strengthened by the fact she was adopted at a young age by her grandmother, Abigail Campbell Kawananakoa. Kekau’s grandmother was married to the royally decreed Prince David Kawananakoa. King Kalakaua was David Kawananakoa’s uncle.

She made it sound like she could be simply anointed Hawaii’s ruler ignoring the fact that according to the laws of the kingdom, if a Hawaiian monarch died without naming a successor, the next monarch would be chosen in an election in which any alii would be eligible to run.

Construction on the new tomb in which Kekau Kawananakoa will be buried will not start until later this month. Her body will be returned to the mortuary at Oahu Cemetery after the private funeral service Jan. 23 to await burial upon the completion of the tomb.

Her tomb will be the only one at Mauna Ala with a single occupant. The Kamehameha tomb has 24 sets of remains. The Kalakaua crypt has the remains of 20 individuals; John Young’s tomb, two, possibly three remains; and the Wyllie tomb, the remains of seven ancestors of Queen Emma.

Kawananakoa’s tomb will be smaller and less tall but will have the form of the Wyllie tomb. Courtesy: Nannette Napoleon

Kawananakoa’s estate has pledged to pay for all costs and maintenance of her tomb in perpetuity. It will be on the makai side of the entrance to Mauna Ala across from the Wyllie tomb. The design will be similar to the Wyllie tomb but it will be smaller and lower and instead of the white stone of the Wyllie tomb, it will be made of black granite with flecks of gold.

Kekau’s cousins who have her same alii blood and similar aristocratic standing have opted for more simple burials in a cluster of graves at Oahu Cemetery, which is not set off by a platform or wall or distinguished in any way from many other burials in the cemetery.

The Poomaikelani grave at Oahu Cemetery. Denby Fawcett/Civil Beat/2023

Her cousin, Edward Keliiahonui “Dudie” Kawananakoa, who Kekau said would have superseded her to be first in line to the royal throne, died of cancer July 29, 1997. There is a royal seal on his modest grave at Oahu Cemetery but during his life he downplayed his Hawaiian alii status, describing himself as “a good American citizen.” He was a pilot in World War II.

Another cousin, Virginia Poomaikelani Kawananakoa died Nov. 19, 1998. She is buried next to Edward at Oahu Cemetery with a similar modest gravestone, marked simply “Poomaikelani 1926-1998.”

Many would agree the passing of Abigail Kinoiki Kekaulike Kawananakoa is the end of the grandiose acts by Hawaiians of alii descent. Nobody alive now has the financial resources that she did to pull it off.

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About the Author

Denby Fawcett

Denby Fawcett is a longtime Hawaii television and newspaper journalist, who grew up in Honolulu. Her book, Secrets of Diamond Head: A History and Trail Guide is available on Amazon. Opinions are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat’s views.

Latest Comments (0)

This article brings to mind how the Americanization and Christianization of Hawai`i changed the view of royalty here. The biological son of Kamehameha III (Kauikeaouli) and his mistress Jane Lahilahi Young Kaʻeo, named Kūnuiākea, was deprived of the throne because he was deemed "illegitimate." Although Bernice Pauahi Bishop was designated as "the last of the Kamehamehas" when she died in 1884, Kūnuiākea who lived until 1903 was the true "last of the Kamehamehas."

Eastside_Kupuna · 10 months ago

This is an article for the history files. Denby and Lee Cataluna are the best reasons to keep reading Civil Beat.

reykahea · 10 months ago

Denby, thank you for a very informative article.I grew up just up Pali Highway from Mauna Ala and knew very little about it so learned a lot.

Inabit · 10 months ago

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