The state has stepped in to untangle legal issues and create a long-term plan.

The living have been left grappling with the problems of the dead in Pearl City.

It’s taking an eternity.

Sunset Memorial Cemetery at 848 Fourth St. is a privately owned graveyard whose owner died 12 years ago, allowing the site to fall into ruins.

A homeless encampment took over part of the cemetery and smashed the gravestones to use for flooring material, causing the markers to be separated from the bodies of the people they were intended to memorialize.

Vandals stole the burial urns, emptied out the contents and sold the brass vases for scrap. Bodies were looted for jewelry. Someone broke open a grave and scattered the bones.

People have jimmied open the doors of the crypts and appear to be sleeping inside the burial niches.

For a while it became an open-air drug market.

Larry Veray stands in front of the mausoleum area of Sunset Memorial Cemetery despoiled by theft and vandalism. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

The soil that covers some of the graves has collapsed and gaping holes have appeared over the caskets below. There’s a towering heap of trash at one of the graveyard entrances.

Even the dead people are lost there, ever since an arsonist burned down the building that held their burial records.

Area residents, led by Larry Veray, chairman of the Pearl City Neighborhood Board, have spent the past decade pressing for some kind of governmental intervention to improve conditions and security at the cemetery.

“Larry is advocating for people who literally have no voice,” said Charmaine Doran, who serves with Veray on the neighborhood board. “He doesn’t have anybody interred there,” Doran said. “It doesn’t affect his family. But he believes in upholding the promise to the people buried there.”

Recently there have been some signs of progress, with state officials investigating the legal snarls that have made it difficult to make improvements and stabilize the situation.

In addition, state Rep. Gregg Takayama is redoubling his long-time interest in the graveyard since a political boundary line change put it in his district last year. He said one of his first priorities there will be installing a fence with a gate around the cemetery to better secure the site and limit access to daytime hours.

Even so, the long-term path forward isn’t entirely clear.

Sunset Memorial Cemetery could be taken over by the state, which already controls six defunct cemeteries, or it could be managed by a non-profit organization. Some people want the grounds to be better maintained.

Others would like to remove their family members and find resting places somewhere else.

Other cemeteries in the state and across the nation have been similarly orphaned, but the situation of this one is particularly notorious.

A damaged crypt lies open at Sunset Memorial Cemetery, its contents looted and removed. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

The relatives of many area residents are buried at Sunset Memorial. There are 5,000 plots, many containing the remains of multiple generations of local families. Around Memorial Day this year, dozens of people gathered there alone or in small groups to pay their respects to those who have already passed on, many of them visibly dispirited at the graveyard’s poor condition.

“It’s sad, it’s so sad,” said Edie Baker of Wahiawa, who has seven relatives buried there.

Missing Loved Ones

The graveyard, once known as Loch View Cemetery, has existed at the site for more than 100 years.

Once it was a pastoral setting, with grassy plots sloping down to the water, in the days before Pearl Harbor became a vast military installation and H-1 was built. It was so picturesque that tourists from Waikiki made day trips there for picnic lunches at a resort hotel also known as Loch View, named for the pretty views over the rice paddies and on to what was then called Pearl River.

Affluent people, including George Galbraith, who owned a vast tract of land in central Oahu at his death in November 1904, were laid to rest there. There was a cemetery scandal that year, but Loch View’s records at that time were kept so securely that the cemetery was lauded as a model for others to follow.

But that didn’t last long, and Galbraith’s remains went missing among several hundred others lost to construction projects in the area.

In 1956, new owners took over the corporation that owned Loch View Cemetery and renamed the facility Sunset Memorial Park, according to a series of legal notices placed in the Honolulu Advertiser that summer.

The new owners, operating as the Hawaiian Cemetery Association, announced plans for a chapel, mausoleum, columbarium and crematory. It also would feature a special area they called “Babyland,” with a peaceful walled garden and a waterfall.

The focal point of the area came to be a statue of a mother holding an infant, with a lamb nearby.

Geoge K. Ikeda, one of the cemetery’s directors, traveled to Japan to get ideas for creating a Japanese section, according to news accounts at the time.

At Sunset Memorial Park the main entrance sign has been laid to rest among many of the grave spots. From time to time individuals come to attend the plots. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Long-time residents remember it as a beautiful spot. They were proud to buy plots that would allow them to house family members together forever.

“This was the place where everybody was buried,” Baker said. “It used to be really nice.”

But the company that owned the cemetery dissolved in 2006 and the owner’s death in 2011 left the cemetery in legal limbo. Now what remains is a tight 4 acres located in a neighborhood wedged between H1 highway to the south and the new light rail train to the north.

The statue of the mother and baby have disappeared, likely stolen. The landscaping has grown wild and patchy.

In 2015, Veray convened a community meeting to discuss the situation and begin efforts to establish a nonprofit organization that would take control of the cemetery.

Takayama, who has family members buried there, began pushing legislation that would require the Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs, which oversees the state cemetery and funeral trust program, to investigate and determine what could be done.

Ideally the cemetery would be sold to another buyer. But “the cemetery’s age, years of neglect, poor record-keeping and potential liability concerns” make that unlikely, the DCCA reported in 2018.

Years passed. Veray kept trying to get government officials to help.

“We just can’t continue to let things fester and wait another year,” he said in 2017, in an article published in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. “We need to have a coordinated effort.”

Area Residents Pick Up

In the meantime, however, residents realized that they would have to care for the cemetery themselves because no one else was coming to do it. Church members, veterans groups, Eagle Scouts, and, more recently, the Pearl City Lions Club, have stepped up to provide yard maintenance and remove trash.

Veray organizes community members to do the work, said Chris Tamura, a 34-year member of the Lions Club.

Local resident Larry Veray has taken a lead role in organizing projects that have tried to care for the cemetery. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

“He has a good heart,” Tamura said. “He cares about Pearl City. So he takes the lead on this project.”

About eight to 10 members of the Lion’s Club join Veray there about four times a year, Tamura said. There is always a lot to clean up, he said.

“People deface things,” he said. “They party here. They disrespect the place.”

The missing grave markers are a particular complication. The stolen gravestones that were dragged away got separated from the burial spots, and the arson fire that destroyed the graveyard’s records caused many people to lose track of the whereabouts of their loved ones.

Four years ago, Laverne Matanane noticed that some of her relatives’ grave markers had disappeared.

“I can’t find my aunt and uncle,” Matanane said recently. “We come every Memorial Day. We take care of the whole family. That’s when we noticed they were gone.”

In February 2022, the DCCA created a web portal that has helped some families locate their loved ones.

“I personally walked several callers through the search tool to find the graves of their relatives,” said William Nhieu, a DCCA spokesman. “At least one cried in happiness when they saw the names and the marker pop up on the portal.”

By early this year, Veray had become increasingly alarmed that the people who had been providing critical grounds maintenance were themselves growing older. Of one group of 10 veterans who had helped, only two have survived and are hale enough to continue the work he said recently, but the societal problems remain.

Many areas of Sunset Memorial Cemetery have fallen into disrepair including these headstones that have been broken, leaving the location of many of those interred uncertain. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

In September 2022, he told the Honolulu Police Department that homeless people were hauling furniture into the mausoleums, and that when one family protested about that use of a family burial spot, they were threatened by a man wielding a large piece of lumber. In October and November, intruders set at least four separate fires, he told them at meetings of the neighborhood board.

“The homeless are still pillaging the cemetery,” Veray said in an interview. “They are living in the mausoleum.”

Veray was relieved when a measure Takayama championed, House Concurrent Resolution 29, was approved by the state legislature in April. It requires DCCA to review the situation at Sunset Memorial and create a long-term management plan for the cemetery.

“It’s good news,” he said. “The bill established a task force to study the way ahead.”

The work has already begun, according to the state Attorney General’s Office.

“The Department of the Attorney General has been working closely with DCCA to address the issues associated with Sunset Memorial Park, as it advises DCCA’s cemetery and funeral trusts program,” said Dave Day, special assistant to the attorney general.

Takayama has also pledged to keep pressing on the issue.

But it probably won’t happen quickly. That means local residents will likely continue to carry the burden of caring for the cemetery.

In a recent interview, Veray said that he was sorry that he couldn’t do more but he has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and he is not as physically active as he once was.

“It’s a pity I can’t get out there and cut the grass myself,” he said.

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