Wednesday, June 12, 2002

This memorial, Ewa of Aloha Stadium, is the largest structure at Aiea Cemetery, where burials stopped in the late 1940s.

Aiea graveyard
endures as an
island in time

Friends work to save Aiea Cemetery
before its history is forgotten

By Gordon Y.K. Pang

No signs mark its location. Most motorists pay no mind to it as they scurry past on their way to other destinations. And those that see it probably just notice the crooked headstones.

Logo A 1987 state study described it as "a virtual island in a sea of highways and highway approaches."

But there are stories, some more than a century old, among the graves of Aiea Cemetery, a 1.5-acre site that has pretty much stood still since the last burials took place in the late 1940s.

Mary Jane Dobson, a sociology professor at Leeward Community College, hopes to find as many of those tales as she can before it's too late.

"So much is written about the same people and the same communities," Dobson said about Hawaii's history books. "But we don't have a full, not even half-full picture of everyday people."

The grave markers hint of the diverse backgrounds of the people buried at a cemetery meant primarily for those who worked at the Honolulu Plantation Co., and lived in the Aiea-Halawa region.

The state has found about 475 grave sites, nearly 200 of them with unknown identities. But Dobson said one former caretaker estimated that as many as 3,000 people were buried at Aiea Cemetery.

State officials were "only counting where there's some kind of marker or artifact," Dobson said. "Graves could be marked by just some kind of concrete perimeter around it, or a rock pile." Older wooden markers, she said, may have deteriorated.

Ronald Davin is the only person in his family who can find the grave of his stepsister, Francine Alcover. Her burial place is marked only by "a pile of rocks," Davin said. She died when he was a youth, he said, and without a marker he cannot remember the date she died.

The 57-year-old Davin goes to Aiea Cemetery each Memorial Day to pay respects to Alcover and his mother, Teofila Davin (1924-1947). This year, Davin took with him his wife Priscilla, daughter Lori, daughter-in-law Anna Mae and 10-month-old grandson Josiah.

"So my kids know where grandma's buried, so they don't forget," Ronald Davin said. Later, the family will go to the grave sites of his wife's parents in Kaneohe as well as that of his father, Pablo Davin, in Mililani.

Francisco Pagay Sr., 89, and his daughter, Carolyn Locquiao, 57, were also at the cemetery on Memorial Day. They were visiting the grave of Francisco Pagay Jr., who died at birth on Dec. 9, 1944.

"It's better now," Locquiao said of the upkeep of the grounds. "Before, they never used to take care of it."

James Hisano, public building management services branch chief for the state Department of Accounting and General Services, said a work crew from Oahu Community Correctional Center visits the grounds about once a month. "Sometimes they miss a month here and there, depending on whether a work line is available," Hisano said. DAGS' cost to maintain the facility? "I buy them lunch every time they go out, usually about 11 of them."

If headstones are knocked over, the workers will attempt to put them back up, Hisano said.

"We don't do too much to the burial sites proper," he said. "The individual sites are a sensitive issue and some families might take exception."

Established just before the turn of the century, the cemetery was closed to new burials by the territory of Hawaii in 1946, ostensibly because it ran out of room.

The graveyard was once about 2.5 acres, but the military took over the makai section during World War II to make way for Kamehameha Highway and parking. The graves were reinterred on the mauka side.

In the 1960s, onramps to the Moanalua Freeway took over land just mauka of the cemetery, but physically did not alter the site itself. But the ramps, along with the Kamehameha Highway project, cut the cemetery off from the rest of Aiea town.

Gloria Laoron remembers when she and her family used to cut across the nearby Aiea Hospital, the cemetery and the Navy laundry facility to get to a boxing arena on part of what is now Aloha Stadium.

The cross on this Aiea Cemetery headstone barely hangs on to its rebar, and the headstone wording has just about worn smooth.

Today, all that is left is the cemetery.

Laoron, in her 70s and still a resident in Aiea along with her husband, Lucas, goes to the cemetery at least once a month to place flowers for her mother, Anatalia Yabo Pareha.

"I like to put flowers for my mom, to let her know I still remember her," she said.

"I'm trying to set an example for my family," Laoron said. "I don't want to be forgotten, I mean, I want to have some flowers on my grave when I die."

Margaret Figueroa's grandfather, Luciano Valgas, is buried at Aiea, while grandmother Dolores is "right above his head." Grand-aunt Mary Torres is also there.

Figueroa, 72, said her grandfather's grave stone, a cement cross, was broken in half. Only the "Luciano" part of his name remains. Of her grandmother's grave stone, she said, "there's nothing left -- she had a cement cross, too."

Figueroa said just before her father, Pablo Valgas, died in 1950, he asked that she visit regularly the grave of his father, and to take care of his mother, who was then still alive.

"I have to fulfill that wish until I die," she said. "To keep him in peace. It's very important that you fulfill a person's last, bedside wish."

She said she intends to ask a nephew to place rocks around the graves and erect new crosses.

"It's important that they don't just dump rubbish there or think nobody's buried there," Figueroa said.

The preservation of the cemetery, she said, is as important as saving the Aiea Sugar Mill.

"It shows that there were people who lived in Aiea for many, many years," she said. As for Dobson's project, "This is going to go down in history," Figueroa said. "At least somebody will get to learn a little bit about Aiea."

Dobson said people need physical places "not just for healing, but a sense of remembrance and connecting the threads of their lives."

Cemeteries definitely fit into that category, she said.

"I think it's important for people to have a sense of their heritage and their roots," she said. "It gives people a sense of meaning, of connectedness and purpose to their lives. If we don't have places that we remember, we have no memories."

While he'd like to improve the sightliness of the grounds, Hisano said, he is not given resources to do so.

An irrigation system would bring grass to the area and spruce it up. "But that would kind of compound our maintenance ... if the grass grows faster," Hisano said. "We don't have the funding to do that."

Besides finding people who have memories of the cemetery and the people buried there, Dobson said, her biggest need is finding people who can read Japanese and help translate writing on grave stones. To help Dobson, call 455-0368.

E-mail to City Desk


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