Tombstone Tourism

A Hui Hou tree illustration
Illustration by Mitchell Fong

In Nu‘uanu Valley, a local writer finds himself among the graves of Hawaiian royals and foreign interlopers.

When Kai Mai‘oho cracked open the door of his small, green house in Nuʻuanu, I could tell immediately that he was sick. He had the flu, he said, and wasn’t up to give a tour of the surrounding property, Mauna ‘Ala, otherwise known as the Royal Mausoleum.

In his 20s, Kai was a top island skateboarder and the owner of the Pearl City skate shop Mishen, which also happened to be my first skateboarding sponsor. He also has a bloodline that traces back to the original protectors of King Kamehameha I’s iwi, or bones. As vessels of a person’s mana, or one’s spiritual essence, iwi, especially those of high chiefs, are closely guarded. In 2015, when his father passed away, Kai inherited the position as Mauna ʻAla’s official kahu, the guardian of the site and its two main depositories of royal iwi, the Kamehameha and Kalākaua crypts.

In lieu of a tour, from which I had hoped to draw material for a story, Kai handed me a book that his dad, Bill Mai‘oho, had helped author Don Chapman write about Mauna ‘Ala. An insightful history, the book covers the successful 1900 petition led by Queen Lili‘uokalani and Robert Wilcox to remove Mauna ‘Ala from the public domain. Then Kai went back inside to rest—meanwhile, below us, the bodies of five Hawaiian kings, seven queens, nearly two dozen royal offspring, a half-dozen high chiefs, and a handful of haole statesmen continued to rest as well.

After my brief visit, as I drove out through gold-tipped iron gates onto Nu‘uanu Avenue, I passed beneath the low, thick arm of a kamani tree that has gone untrimmed for decades—like another guardian offering protection against oversized vans that would surely make the mausoleum roundabout part of island tours, if given the chance.

Half a block away was O‘ahu Cemetery. I remembered reading that the early Hawaiian politician and historian John Papa ‘Ī‘ī was buried there and decided to pay my respects. Venturing down one of the sprawling cemetery’s paved lanes, past a row of far-from-home 1840s whalers, I suddenly came across the plot of Lorrin Thurston, the man who led the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy. A grotesquely twisted pine tree rose up behind his rough-hewn headstone.

After an hour of meandering through plots of the namesakes of Honolulu streets—Dillingham, Metcalf, Dowsett, Monsarrat, Judd, Wilder, Farrington—I found John ‘Ī‘ī’s humble headstone. Set within a square of shrubs, ‘Ī‘ī lay at a distance from many of Honolulu’s influential Caucasians, but close to a patch of commemorative markers for Hawaiian royals, many of whom are buried at Mauna ‘Ala. ‘Ī‘ī had also been a judge, I recalled. Standing before his engraved name, I felt a dawning sense of justice in not being able to tour Mauna ‘Ala, in being drawn away from the headliners of Hawaiian history to the relatively unknown gravesite of ‘Ī‘ī, who devoted his life to serving and documenting the Kamehameha dynasty. I had allotted just a single afternoon for this tour through the tombs. Who am I to write of their bones?

In fact, I may have been more like the outsider Mark Twain, when reporting on the 1866 funeral of Princess Victoria Kamāmalu. Watching the procession ascend to Mauna ‘Ala, Twain was baffled by the mix of Western decorum and unrestrained, emotional wailing—signs of a people straddling disparate funerary traditions. ‘Ī‘ī may well have been there, too, gravely observing it all.

Walking back to the car, I realized that when paying Kai future visits at Mauna ‘Ala, I would do well to watch my roof racks as I pass beneath the growing, swooping arm of that kamani tree.

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