At Makiki Cemetery, ankle-high weeds completely obscure some headstones. Gravestones are sinking or toppled over at Sunset Memorial Park in Pearl City. Feral chicken flocks roam the gravesites at Ket On Society Cemetery in Honolulu.

Oahu is home to more than 80 public cemeteries, some dating back to the mid-1800s. But it’s not just the island’s oldest cemeteries that are in danger of falling into disrepair. A growing number of actively used cemeteries on Hawaii’s most populous island are struggling with maintenance issues and facing financial challenges as cemetery owners run out of financial resources or plot space to sell.

“It’s a common problem,” said Charles Wong, president of the Lin Yee Chung Association, a nonprofit that owns the historic Manoa Chinese Cemetery. “Once the cemetery is full, and there are no more plots left to be sold, the income stream dries up, and then you don’t have the money to maintain the cemetery anymore.”

Overgrown vegetation grows through a cracked grave stone at the Manoa Chinese Cemetery. David Croxford/Civil Beat/2022

Wong says the Manoa Chinese Cemetery is facing bankruptcy due to dwindling plot sales.

Hawaii state law requires cemeteries be licensed and put money in their own perpetual care fund, but only 13 cemeteries are licensed.

Community volunteers and church groups say they are doing their best to help some of the struggling cemeteries, but they can only do so much in cleaning up and raising money to assist in maintenance costs.

The state and county can take possession of abandoned cemeteries by eminent domain. The state currently cares for seven cemeteries, but state-owned cemeteries aren’t always in top shape — something blamed in past years on budget cuts at the state Department of Accounting and General Services that led to a loss of some grounds maintenance staff positions.

Cemetery historian Nanette Napoleon said many cemeteries were built before management rules were created by the state, which is why they are in disarray. She said the state needs to do more to address the overall problem of maintaining cemeteries in perpetuity.

“It all comes down to if the owner can afford to maintain the cemetery, which is sad because then it’s up to the individual families to clean their areas,” Napoleon said.

Financial Challenges

Like any other business, cemeteries need to make money to stay open. Some cemeteries heavily depend on plot sales as their main revenue generator. But as cemeteries begin to reach total capacity, questions arise about their longevity.

To prevent cemeteries from becoming dilapidated, the state implemented a cemetery licensing law in 1967, requiring cemeteries to be licensed under the state Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs and create individual perpetual care funds. In addition, cemeteries are required to put money from their plot or niche sales into a perpetual care fund to cover maintenance costs when cemeteries are full.

According to DCCA, 13 cemeteries are licensed in the state and have created separate trusts.

Residents still visit their loved ones at Sunset Memorial Park in Pearl City, which has fallen into a state of disrepair. David Croxford/Civil Beat/2022

But not all cemeteries are covered by the law. For example, churches and cemeteries built before the law are excluded, although cemetery owners can still apply for a license and create a trust fund if they want to.

Some cemeteries that have created a fund are: Diamond Head Memorial Park, Nuuanu Memorial Park, Honolulu Memorial Park, Valley of the Temples, Maui Memorial Park and Kona Memorial Park.

Sunset Memorial Park was licensed and created a trust, according to DCCA, but the cemetery no longer has an owner and the trust can’t be accessed without one.

“It all comes down to if the owner can afford to maintain the cemetery, which is sad because then it’s up to the individual families to clean their areas.” — Historian Nanette Napoleon

David Dahl, a cemetery planning consultant based in Oregon, advises cemetery owners to create a perpetual care fund and place at least 30% of the money earned by selling graves or niches into it.

He said most states require cemetery owners to put away at least 6% of the money into the perpetual care fund.

“That’s pretty low,” Dahl said. “To me, that’s why cemeteries fail. They don’t put enough into their maintenance fund or that endowment care fund.”

A Common Problem

When Maureen Andrade visits Sunset Memorial park, she often brings flowers to pay her respects to four generations of family members buried there. She also trims back weeds and picks up trash in the area.

This is a common practice for Pearl City residents who have been taking care of the cemetery since its owner passed away more than a decade ago, leaving no one to manage it.

Residents have long raised concerns about the neglected cemetery, highlighting stolen urns, sunken graves, overgrown vegetation and a crumbling mausoleum. The cemetery has also caught fire several times.

“People don’t understand how bad it is unless they have loved ones buried there,” Andrade said.

Volunteers at Sunset Memorial Park placed traffic cones to mark a grave’s location, but it’s also sinking. David Croxford/Civil Beat/2022

Residents have pleaded with the state to take over the cemetery or tap into the previous owner’s trust fund of $168,000. But without the owner, the trustee will not release the funds.

Earlier this year, the department launched an online portal to help family members locate their loved ones’ graves.

Sunset Memorial Park is one example of what may happen to a cemetery with no funds to support it.

Wong of the Lin Yee Chung Association said he doesn’t want that to happen at Manoa Chinese Cemetery.

The 172-year-old cemetery, located in the upper valley of Manoa, has some deteriorating headstones, worn-down roadways and dilapidated buildings.

Wong said the cemetery relies on plot sales to pay for maintenance costs, but there are only about 200 vacant plots left.

The association hopes that building affordable housing on the property will solve the problems the cemetery faces. The project is still in the beginning stages of garnering public input.

Not all cemeteries rely on plot sales, and some use a different business model to create more income.

The owners of the Manoa Chinese Cemetery say the cemetery is almost at full capacity. David Croxford/Civil Beat/2022

Scott Power, president of the nonprofit Oahu Cemetery and Crematory, said the Oahu Cemetery is good shape financially. That’s because income from the mortuary and crematorium help pay for maintenance costs at the graveyard.

Power said cremations are increasing nationally because they’re cheaper than burials. Power added that cremations also take up less space in cemeteries. 

“When you look at the other cemetery operations in town, the ones that are well-funded are the ones that have these alternative income sources,” Power said, adding that Valley of the Temples has a similar business model.

Older and smaller cemeteries need additional income sources to fuel their operating budget, Power said, adding that it’s a challenge when there are no more burial plots left to sell.

Communities Want the State To Step Up

Pearl City residents have asked the state to take over Sunset Memorial Park by eminent domain.

Larry Veray, who chairs the Pearl City Neighborhood Board, acknowledged it would be a challenge because taking responsibility for a cemetery at nearly full capacity would be costly.

Veray expressed his disappointment in the previous state and mayoral administrations for not taking over while receiving a surplus of money from tax revenues and assistance from federal funds.

“For the volunteers, they’re getting older and their health is deteriorating,” Veray said. “It makes it more difficult to go out to the cemetery and perform grooming.”

The state Department of Accounting and General Services, which helps pay for maintaining seven cemeteries, did not respond when asked if it will take over Sunset Memorial Park.

Community members have complained that there’s not enough upkeep at state-managed cemeteries to trim back the vegetation from the gravestones and that homeless encampments and feral animals have taken over some of the sites.

The state owns Makiki Cemetery, but the Association of Hawaii Japanese Christian Churches maintains parts of the cemetery.

Yoshitaka Fujinami, a pastor at Makiki Christian Church, said the association has taken care of the cemetery for a decade and has asked the state numerous times to help with the maintenance costs.

A 2021 letter sent by the association to DAGS read: “We sincerely call your kind attention once again to our lack of perpetual care funds. The remaining funds will no longer be sufficient for release for the task within the next one or two years.”

“Many of the families have moved away or died off,” the letter continued. “There are fewer or no living family members who feel a personal connection to those who are buried in the cemetery. Some of the aged gravestones are also potentially hazardous.”

Kawaihao Church Cemetery shows crumbling infrastructure. David Croxford/Civil Beat/2022

In response, the department said that although it understands the financial difficulties, the state “is also faced with a similar situation,” according to the letter replying to the association.

“They don’t care about it,” Fujinami said.

The department said it understands the concerns raised about cemetery maintenance, adding that it is requesting money from the Legislature to fund a groundskeeping position for the Hanapepe Cemetery on Kauai.

There are only two groundskeepers to maintain six cemeteries on Oahu and none on Kauai.

“We are grateful to the families and volunteer groups who have donated their time and resources to help maintain the cemeteries,” Richard Louie, central services division administrator, and Eric Agent, Kauai District office manager, said in an email statement.

Community Efforts

Like the Pearl City residents, other residents in neighborhoods with dilapidated cemeteries have taken matters into their own hands.

Laura Ruby helps coordinate the Moiliili Japanese Cemetery Beautification Project. She started the initiative to fix up the cemetery, which was created in 1908 and has more than 2,000 gravestones. Volunteers have pulled weeds, planted trees and other plants, and built seating areas.

The group received a $1,000 grant from the Awesome Foundation — an international organization that supports community projects though microgrants — and other donations from the community to pay for the upkeep of the more than century-old cemetery.

Ruby underscored that volunteers first removed trash from the cemetery that filled up five dumpsters and built a 556-foot wall. They also raised enough money to pay for plumbing and adding asphalt in the cemetery’s driveway.

The cemetery is owned by the Japanese Cemetery Association. Its president, Clifford Hosoi, didn’t reply to a request for comment.

While neighbors have dedicated their time to keeping the cemetery in top shape, others are worried about what will happen when they die.

Andrade is questioning her own burial plans. Although she said she has pre-purchased a burial plot in Mililani, she’s worried about who will take care of her grave when she’s gone.

“It’s a scary thought, and I worry about my kids taking care of maintaining the grave site,” Andrade said. “If I’m cremated and something happens to me, it’s dust to dust.”

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