FL MORRIS / FMORRIS@STARBULLETIN.COM
John and Betty Lou Wickham were wartime sweethearts, married in 1946. He has visited her crypt at Diamond Head Memorial Park daily since she died in 2006.
Tending the grave sites of loved ones is a daily act of caring for some
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Visiting graves can be a spooky experience. Or a responsibility we cram into our busy lives, usually only on special occasions.
But for some, grave-tending is a daily occurrence.
What motivates them?
"When she was alive, my wife would call me her right hand, and she was my left hand, because she was left-handed and I'm right-handed," said John ("Jack") Wickham, 83, of Waikiki. "We did everything together. I miss her so much."
Lynne Lee of Pearl City looks to her dead mother, Sadie, for guidance in times of trouble. "I visit her crypt out of respect and love but also to ask her what I should do when I'm in trouble.
"And to get her to help me to make Dad listen to me," quipped Lynne of her 90-year-old father, who has dementia and for whom she is caretaker.
Siu Gwon Lee of Makiki believes visiting his parents' graves at Nuuanu Memorial Park helps him to grieve but also to re-energize. "I feel more integrated after visiting the graves," said Siu Gwon (no relation to Lynne). "After they died, I was pretty much left alone, so visiting them helps me get my equilibrium back.
DENNIS ODA / DODA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Lynne Lee places fresh anthuriums at the crypt of her mother, Sadie, at Nuuanu Memorial Park. She says her frequent visits are a matter of respect but also bring her security and strength.
"I try to come once a day, and when I do I feel more at peace, so I know it works."
Is there a precedent for this in traditional culture?
"Hawaiians felt the ancestors were all around, all the time," said Tin Hu Young, 80, a volunteer archivist at Kawaiaha'o Church. "So it was important to visit the graves, but it wasn't how many times you did it, but more how you did it, with the proper respect.
"Hawaiians did things more spiritually than we do now. The ancestors were honored through our genealogy chants, so that was another way of remembering them."
George Tanabe Jr., emeritus professor of religion at the University of Hawaii, says Japanese Buddhist tradition calls for visiting graves during the summer obon season, when it is believed the dead spirits return for family reunions. "Here in Hawaii the major time for expected grave visitations is also Memorial Day. Death anniversaries are also times for visits."
Respect for ancestors is important among the Chinese, Japanese and native Hawaiians, Tanabe says. "The core belief is that the dead still need to be cared for, still need to be remembered."
Some believe, however, that too much visitation could disturb the spirits. "In Chinese tradition, other than during the Ching Ming Festival during spring (April 4 this year), you're supposed to stay away from the graves so as not to interrupt the ancestors' journey to a higher level," said Duane Pang, a Taoist priest of the Wah Kong Temple in Liliha.
"In China the graves are usually overgrown and untended, except during the Ching Ming season. But Chinese would burn incense daily to honor the ancestors and would keep their ancestors' tablets (with their genealogies) at home."
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FL MORRIS / FMORRIS@STARBULLETIN.COM
John Wickham will sometimes spend hours at the crypt of his wife, Betty Lou, who died two years ago.
It was a whirlwind wartime romance that lasted a lifetime.
When John and Betty Lou Wickham first met in 1945 at a Veterans of Foreign Wars dance in Pasco, Wash., it was love at first sight.
"I was still in the Navy as an aviation electrician, and she was working for the federal government as a secretary," recalled "Jack" Wickham, 83. "We just struck up a conversation, and it turned out we had the same wants and desires. We got married a year later, after the war ended."
They had two daughters, Pamela and Marsha.
In 1971, when Jack's Richland, Wash., naval base closed, the Wickhams decided to take the honeymoon they'd always wanted, in Hawaii. They liked it so much that they stayed.
Jack retired from his job as an electrical supervisor at Pearl Harbor in 1985.
It was in 1997 that Betty's troubles began. First it was shingles. Then she went into septic shock in 1999. Even CAT scans showed nothing. On May 2, 2006, she died of a heart attack.
"I visit her crypt every day, rain or shine," said Jack. "It brings me closer to her. I even talk to her in the apartment, asking her what she thinks of things. I feel like she's still here." Wickham says even his daughters feel their mom is protecting them from beyond the grave.
Jack has brought American flags to the crypt, as well as pink ginger and shell flowers, a photo of their 60th anniversary, an anniversary card and a statue of the Infant of Prague (a symbol of the Baby Jesus).
"I don't visit her every day for a religious reason," explained Jack, "and I don't think it's bad to do so. A lot of other visitors here think I'm very devoted, but she would've done it for me.
"I don't feel like I'm losing my marbles. We were married for 60 years; we knew each other so well that we knew what the other was going to say or do next. And after visiting her grave, I feel energized, I feel better."
What would Betty say to Jack now? Jack grinned. "She'd probably point out that now I don't have anyone to talk back to me, so I can have it all my way."
DENNIS ODA / DODA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Lynne Lee arranges flowers at the crypt of her mother, Sadie, at Nuuanu Memorial Park. Lee keeps the flowers fresh for her mother, who died in 1993.
"Call Lynne," was what Lynne Lee's mom, Sadie, would always tell the family when there was a problem. That's how Lynne knew her mom trusted her to take care of things.
Sadie, 79, died in 1993 of a brain tumor. "For about a year before that, my mom had blurred vision, headaches and was frequently off balance," said Lynne. "We tried different doctors, but they couldn't figure out what it was. Some even called it pneumonia.
"But I believe when people die, they come back to us as spirits. One night around midnight after my mom passed away, I could feel my mom tapping me on the back, and I could feel her hand on my shoulder. I think that was her way of telling me, 'I'm OK.'"
Since then, Lynne says, whenever she has a problem that she doesn't know how to deal with, her mom comes to her in her dreams with advice. "One time I dreamed my mom was scolding my older brother, Gordon, 'Don't go to Japan!' Later on, it turned out that the new job he took in Japan didn't turn out well."
Lee, 59, a retired intermediate school history and English teacher from Pearl City, visited her mother's crypt every day until 2002, when her father's dementia worsened and she had to stay home to care for him. Now she tries to go to the grave at least once a week.
"I spend about an hour cleaning up my mother's crypt, bringing her flowers, changing the water, bringing her food, praying to her. I always bring the food back so it won't spoil, though. Sometimes I'll burn paper money (Chinese silver or gold ingots to symbolize prosperity), or I'll buy her a trinket or ornament on special occasions.
"I go out of respect and love for my mother. It's also a way that I can talk to her, and it gives me a sense of security and strength. I ask her for protection and for help in keeping the family together."
And Lynne doesn't believe in the Chinese tradition of leaving the spirits alone. "My sister-in-law once told me not to visit Mom so much because I was bothering her. But I said we used to bother her when she was alive, so what's the difference?"
CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Siu Gwon Lee visits the graves of his parents, George and Clara, at Nuuanu Memorial Park.
RESPECT FOR FAMILY AND HERITAGE
Although Siu Gwon Lee is of the Catholic faith, he still honors his parents' Chinese tradition of honoring the dead. "My philosophy is more of a 'natural philosophy,' in that if it feels right for me to do, I'll do it," said Lee.
"There's a Chinese belief that visiting the graves too much is bad for your psychology -- that if you don't have a special reason to visit the dead, you shouldn't go. But I do have a special reason: I love my parents and I cherish them, so I try to visit their graves daily, and I believe that this is beneficial."
Lee's father, George, 70, died in 1967 of a stroke, and his mother, Clara, 91 (for whom Lee was caretaker during her final years), died in 1994 of heart failure. Siu Gwon, 69, of Makiki has been visiting their graves almost every day since 1994.
"If the weather is severe, I won't go out," he said, "but otherwise I'll be here. Visiting them helps maintain my Chinese heritage, and it's a habit that allows me to realize the spiritual presence of my parents.
"I do believe our ancestors can help us and that we have to have faith in something beyond us. We have to have a system."
Siu Gwon, a retired substitute science teacher, was raised under his mother's Chinese tradition of bringing pork, rice and tea to the graves during the spring Ching Ming season. "We would also burn 'heong' (incense) or candles, and also silver and gold paper in the form of tael (ingots) to symbolize a prayer of prosperity to the ancestors."
Lee also brings flowers and food for his parents, though he takes the food home with him.
"Visiting their graves helps me to grieve," reflected Lee. "I miss them, and if I can channel their presence, then it makes me feel less alone."