Cover Story

Is there space for all our public displays of grief?


Cover image for Dec 14, 2011

In Loving Memory of Robbie and Kalakekuewa, 1969–2011,” says the smooth-faced boulder in big, grey-paint letters for all to see. On the margin, scrawled above a petroglyph-style sketch of a paddler, is the name of a canoe club, Healani. “Cherish memories” is written by the drawing of a maile-draped ‘ukulele. All in all, it’s a sweet and touching memorial that will last until it weathers away or gets wiped clean by a sandblaster. The upright stone is close to water’s edge, right next to the landmark Alan Davis Ranch wall separating the city’s Wawamalu Beach Park from the state’s Ka Iwi Scenic Shoreline Park in southeast Oahu.

A few yards west of the bamboocha rock lie two small metal plaques discreetly cemented onto dry beach rock even closer to the tidepools and the sea. A corroded copper sheet with engraved lettering reads, “In Loving Memory of Peter Kaina Kuloloia Jr July 7, 1935–September 1, 1999.” A few yards away, a smaller plaque in thick cast bronze reads in raised lettering, “In loving memory of HPD Maj. Thomas J. Graham Aug. 2, 1941–July 19, 2003.”

Around the bend, past Makapuu, at Kaupo Beach Park, sits a much more elaborate memorial put up by family and friends of the late Kamuela R.K. Kaleikilo, a 22-year-old Waimanalo man who was shot to death during a quarrel on New Year’s Day two years ago.

Kaleikilo’s memorial is set in a small naupaka island in the sand between the lawn/parking area and the rocky shore. A polished black granite stone engraved with white-painted lettering gives Kaleikilo’s vital statistics along with “Love You Pretty Boy.” Arranged around it, as if on a shrine, are pohaku wrapped with lei, teddy bears, an upright canoe paddle, stylized kii, beer and liquor bottles, as well as glass vases regularly replenished with fresh armfuls of ginger, bird of paradise, heliconia and anthurium. The assemblage, big as a small room, can be lit at night by small, solar-powered lamps staked into the sand, with a miniature spotlight aimed up toward the central plaque.

On the west side of Oahu, a low hump of smooth beach rock interrupts Makua’s long crescent of sand. Its surface bristles with things: upright crosses, low concrete plinths, plaques surrounded by beer bottles. Among those memorialized here are “Frank M. Raymond–Legend and Fisherman of Makua–Loving Dad, Grandfather, Friend–Dec. 7, 1916–June 15, 2008”; “Beloved Husband, Dad, Papa–Domingo Albert Alonzo–1941 to 2010”; “Mama Dog and Dutches–1992–2007–Forever in Our Hearts”; “James Keo [something] Rosa” (scratched into a rusting iron cross, the middle name is no longer legible); and, lastly, “Our Son,” burnished into another corroded iron cross.

Down the coast at Waianae Small Boat Harbor, a stretch of beach rock adjacent to the jetty is encrusted with nearly 30 years worth of memorials. There may be 100 of them, an expanse of corroding crosses, cracked plinths, polished stone markers, mosaics set in concrete and a few body-length slab constructions that look just like graves or tombs complete with headstones. Among the oldest is a polished and engraved rectangular stone set into a concrete frame. It memorializes “Beloved Father Alfred” and “Beloved Mother Juliette” Castro, who died in 1983 and 1987, respectively, according to the barely legible, weathered lettering in the stone. Below the vitals is inscribed, “We remember you with love.”

Why build them?

In a phone conversation, Anthony Kuloloia of Waimanalo remembers that it cost him about $40 at the Trophy Shop to get his dad’s copper plaque engraved. The reason he and his family decided to install it near the Alan Davis wall at Wawamalu was “to have someplace to go to, a place to remember,” he says.

“My dad was always down there fishing. He called it Pipe Littles. Every weekend we’d go down there, and he’d throw net.”

The idea for his dad’s plaque came from a National Geographic TV special about the sinking of the Titanic, Kuloloio says. “They actually have a plaque on the ocean floor for all the guys that died on the Titanic, so I was like, ‘Oh, maybe we can just make a small little plaque and put it up there.’” He cemented it to the rock with a two-tube adhesive called Water Putty.

About two years ago, a small flurry of articles appeared in the newspapers about beach memorials, bureaucrats and the Hawaii Kai Neighborhood Board. At roughly the same time, Kuloloia says, his mother got a call from the state Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) asking the family to remove the plaque. “So I told them, ‘Eh, if you want to remove it, go take it off.’ And they said, no, they didn’t want to remove it, they wanted us to remove it.”

And that was the end of that. The family didn’t hear from DLNR again.

Kuloloia, who works for the US Air Force at Hickam, says he lived in Waianae for a few years recently and was surprised to discover there were a bunch of beach memorials over there, too.

I ask him what he would do if he was a public official and these memorials were popping up everywhere. After a long pause and nervous laughter, “Probably nothing,” he says. Then he continues thoughtfully, “I don’t know. I thought it was all right until I saw these articles in the paper and the people complaining who say they go to the beach all the time… I didn’t know it was going to cause this much hassle.”

Both Kukoloia’s parents are from Maui where, he says, he recently buried his grandmother in the family’s own little backyard graveyard. “You know what, I always thought my dad wanted to get buried in a cemetery,” he says. “But when he actually passed away, he donated everything that he had–I didn’t know he was an organ donor–and so my mom said, ‘Yeah, we’re going to cremate him and spread him in the ocean,’ so I said, ‘Okay.’ ”

Bureaucrats respond

“I cannot believe people do this! People have gall to do this!” sputtered state Sen. Pohai Ryan (D, Hawaii Kai–Kailua) as she sifted through pictures of beach memorials dotting Oahu’s shores.

Ryan was at a Sept. 16 meeting at the Capitol to discuss the memorials and other Ka Iwi coast issues with area stakeholders. Attendees included representatives of DLNR, the Hawaii Kai Neighborhood Board, the Ka Iwi Coalition (including this reporter), and a staffer from city Councilmember Stanley Chang’s office. Also attending was state Rep. Gene Ward (R, Hawaii Kai–Kalama Valley).

Curt Cottrell, DLNR’s assistant administrator for state parks, gave a brief summary of past attempts to contact the families and to get the east side memorials removed, but the cost and the time required were prohibitive and better allocated elsewhere, he said. The conversation devolved into confusion about locations and numbers of memorials, then drifted to permanent vs. non-permanent structures, authorized vs. unauthorized memorials, and then to the capacity issue: How many memorials can we tolerate?

Cottrell held up a 2007 book, Guardian of the Sea: Jizo in Hawaii by respected local beach expert John R.K. Clark, who studied the shoreline obelisks and Jizo statues erected by Japanese fishing clubs and Buddhist groups in the first half of the 20th century. The jizo function doubly as danger signs to the living and as memorials to those who lost their lives fishing on the treacherous rocks.

What’s the difference? Cottrell seemed to suggest. I understood his conceptual argument–and his discomfort with the notion of DLNR enforcement officers going in with pickaxes to bust up the tender memorials while family members wipe away tears for the TV news cameras.

Videographer Ann Marie Kirk, a volunteer with the Ka Iwi Coalition, asked, “What’s the difference between these memorials and graffiti?”

City action

Gary Cabato, director of the city’s parks & recreation department, makes no bones about his position on beach memorials on public land. “Private permanent structures are prohibited under the law on public property,” he says, “so you cannot erect memorials like I’ve seen on the Ka Iwi coast.”

Kaupo Beach Park, home to the illuminated Kamuela Kaleikilo memorial, lies under the department’s management. In a recent phone interview, Cabato, a 17-year veteran of the department, said he goes out daily to inspect his parks, and that he surveyed several beach memorials just days before our conversation. He excitedly described the memorials he saw at Kaupo Beach Park.

“The one that scared me was some kind of altar built out of rocks,” he said. “It’s not a natural formation. For me to be able to see it from the roadway… It’s unauthorized, so I made a note to have it removed.

“Of course, before we do anything, we’ll try to contact the family,” he avers. “We want to give them time so they can grieve and whatever’s appropriate for them, but then we’ll explain our point and explain why it’s not allowed.”

He pauses. “You know, no one wants to [remove the memorials], but what is the correct thing to do for future generations?”

As an alternative, Cabato points out that whoever wants to put up a memorial for a loved one can work with his department’s district offices to arrange for a memorial bench at a mutually agreed-upon location. There are four such benches lined up at Sandy Beach, each approved by the City Council in a process that takes months. The cost, Cabato says, is about $500 for the purchase and installation of a bench, including the memorial plaque. He estimates that maybe three bench projects have cleared the bureaucracy this year.

Two weeks after our phone interview, Cabato reported that park workers recently removed several temporary memorials (mostly piles of pohaku and flowers) that have sprung up at Ka Iwi’s string of beach parks. And he says the department is preparing a letter to Kaleikilo’s family asking them to remove his substantial (and lighted) assemblage, and if it’s not gone by a certain date, Cabato says, the department will remove it.

Kaleikilo’s family is aware of the city’s impending actions, but his mother, Louise “Wiji” Kahawai, is unwilling to talk about her son’s memorial, which she has tended regularly since putting it up almost two years ago.

Her boyfriend, Victor Kukahiwa, 51, says, “There should be places where poor folks can put plaques. There’s gonna be more and more people who can’t afford burials and cemeteries.” (According to news reports, costs for a funeral and cemetery burial in Hawaii average between $10,000 and $15,000.)

Kukahiwa describes his idea of “little, passive parks next to the ocean with benches, [and] maybe a little grassy area. “When my wife died of cancer,” he says, “I did the regular thing, put her in a cemetery, and I went over there all the time for the first three months. Then it just fades away and you stop going to the cemetery.

“But people go to the parks. It’s where all the family goes. You can swim, have barbeque, just come and hang out… The beach is better than a graveyard.”

Kukahiwa says there’s a big memorial at Kaiona Beach Park in Waimanalo with over 20 old-timers’ names inscribed on it. “Who’s gonna remove that?” he asks. “If you guys start making laws about this stuff, then where can Hawaiian people put their loved ones? What can we use to remember them?”

One answer: The Internet. In Kamuela Kaleikilo’s case, it’s already been done. Twice. His family and girlfriend set up a memorial website complete with a Boyz II Men soundtrack on [] a month after his death. Another website, [], has page dedicated to Kaleikilo automatically generated by the US Government’s Social Security Death Index.

State inaction

State Sen. Ryan is thinking along the same lines as Kukahiwa and talks about “serenity parks,” with low memorial walls with space available to the public to engrave loved ones’ names.

I ask the lawmaker if she remains as absolutist, as she sounded at the November meeting about private beach memorials on public land. “I am,” she says, “ but I also have to be sensitive to the fact that ordering the removal of existing memorials might not be possible, for several reasons: One, the emotional, highly charged nature of the act. Two, the visual impact might be more devastating than what’s there already. And it would be hard to put DLNR staff in that position.”

Previous to his appointment by Gov. Abercrombie to head DLNR, William Aila served 24 years as harbormaster at the Waianae Small Boat Harbor. He says the graveyard facsimile at the boat harbor grew “organically” over 30 years, and that it was not within his kuleana but managed separately as unencumbered state land by DLNR’s land division.

Aila surmises that a “vast majority” of the island’s beach memorials are within DLNR’s jurisdiction, “simply because we control the majority of public lands on Oahu.”

I ask him about DLNR’s apparently lax enforcement of existing laws regarding unauthorized permanent structures on public land, but, understandably, he pleads poverty: DLNR’s miniscule budget regularly ranks among the smallest-per-capita for state environmental agencies in the nation. “I have to choose, in terms of priorities,” Aila says, “whether I assign someone to go out there and remove memorials or to investigate health and safety issues, clearing streams and what not–or I can send them out to work on leases to increase revenues. Memorials are low on the priorities list.”

Private coping

My sister Kai accompanied me when I toured the memorials on the west side. We were both on Oahu to help care for our ailing, 91-year-old father, a widower of two years who had had a bad stroke. The weekday car trip out to Waianae was a nice break, and the shore was quiet. Together we walked through the fields of memorials at Makua, at the boat harbor and all around the rocks of Kaneilio point at the south end of Pokai Bay.

Kai talked about the memorials later on the phone. She said she was moved by them and upset that they might become an issue.

“Here are these people trying to remember someone they love,” she said, “and someone’s going to legislate a new law and tell them they can’t?”

Always a bleeding heart.

“Of course it’s better to remember loved ones close to the sea, rather than in a box in a cemetery that costs $5,000!” Kai said sharply. Then she added, almost in a whisper: “There’s something powerful about those memorials. When I was standing on those rocks and there they were, it was like you’re with the spirit of those people, their stories.”


Last year Erika Doss, professor of American Studies at Notre Dame, published a pop-cultural tome: Memorial Mania: Public Feeling in America. “Much of today’s memorial making is excessive, frenzied, and extreme,” she writes, asking, “What is driving this contemporary American frenzy to memorialize, and who is being remembered?”

In a chapter on grief and temporary memorials she discusses America’s long history of roadside memorials and cites the case of Colorado resident Rodney Lyle Scott, who, in April 2000, dismantled a roadside memorial made from a cross and plastic flowers, which he had driven by every day for years. When the family reported it missing, Scott was charged with “desecration of a venerated object.”

Scott told Doss, “I didn’t appreciate somebody else throwing their hurt and sorrow out for public view, as if it was more important than someone else’s hurt or loss.”

The case against Scott was dismissed, and Colorado eventually outlawed privately erected roadside memorials altogether, instituting instead a uniform Roadside Memorial Signing program. But of course, not everyone was happy with this, either. “This is the bureaucratization of love. I don’t like it one bit,” said a conservative Virginia assemblyman when that state enacted a roadside memorial policy similar to Colorado’s in 2004. He vowed to defy the new law and put up a roadside cross anyway for his son, who had been killed in a car accident.

Doss spends several pages talking about “mourning management,” suggesting that spontaneous commemorations of tragic or traumatic death (mountains of flowers at the gates to Kensington Palace after the death of Princess Diana, mountains of ephemera at Columbine High School, the AIDS Memorial Quilt, etc.) often morph into permanent memorials, “places of communion between the living and the dead, inviting broad public participation.” She quotes folklorist Jack Santino: “Such memorials display death in the heart of social life. These are not graves awaiting occasional visitors and sanctioned decorations. Instead of a family visiting a grave, the ‘grave’ comes to the family–that is, to the public. All of us.” —