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Grave Marker Preservation Project Completed

Kalaupapa National Historical Park

National Park News

From January to March of this year, Emily Harte, exhibits specialist with the Historic Preservation Training Center, joined forces with Kalaupapa NHP exhibits specialist Richard Miller to perform extensive preservation work on seven severely deteriorated historic tombs located in the Kalawao area of the park.

Kalaupapa is the site of the century-long program of exile and imprisonment of victims of Hansen’s disease (leprosy) which began in 1865.  Kalawao was the location of the first settlement of exiled people and was the home of Saint Damien, who has been recognized for his work with the patients. 

Approximately eight thousand people were sent to Kalaupapa during the time of exile.  Thousands were buried in unmarked mass graves, and the 1946 tsunami removed many wooden and lightweight masonry grave markers. Twelve hundred historic grave markers exist in the park. This project is part of continuous program of grave marker recording, assessment, and preservation begun in the park in 2003. 

“Cemeteries and grave markers are a significant and unique historic property type worthy of its own dedicated management program, as are the archaeology, ethnography and museum collections programs,” said Erika Stein, cultural resources program manager. “The grave markers contribute to the NHL and the cultural landscape and are a tangible feature to the landscape which illustrates the vast number of people sent to the peninsula during the period of banishment. It is the kuleana (responsibility) of the NPS in Kalaupapa to provide a well-maintained community- we view this preservation work as one of the components in meeting that responsibility.” 

The tombs that received treatment are constructed of lava rock set in lime-based mortar.  Most are coated with lime-based render and some were lime washed as well.  Each of the tombs had suffered partial collapse.  Preservation treatment involved careful disassembly of collapsed and unstable fabric, followed by repair with mortars matching the original materials.  Both exhibits specialists have considerable experience using historic lime-based mortars; each has received training through the NPS’s Historic Preservation Training Center and the Scottish Lime Center Charlestown Workshops and each has worked around the United States on historic structures using lime-based mortars.

The project was opened with Hawaiian protocol performed on site by Kalaupapa NHP ethnographer Kaohulani McGuire.  Every work day was begun with personal reflection by the exhibit specialists to make pono (spiritually correct) the sensitive work to be undertaken that day, and, similarly, each day was closed with the eating of a pinch of Kalaupapa sea salt to symbolize the purity of the intent of the work and to provide protection for all involved in the project.

“From the moment the opening ceremony was performed by Kaohulani, I realized this was going to be an esoteric experience,” said Harte. “The responsibility for ensuring the reverence due the grave markers and tombs and the labor of preserving them help tell the compelling story of Kalaupapa to the world. This leaves me with an unparalleled lasting memory:  one of a sense of duty to the people who lost their lives and another to the children of the future.”

“Kalaupapa symbolizes the triumph of the human spirit over extreme hardship,” said Miller. “It is an honor to help to bring dignity back to these tombs, the final resting places of people who were separated from their homes and loved ones, their choices taken from them, first by the disease, and then by their government.  I know it makes the living patients happy to see the care the Park Service extends to gravemarker preservation, and it is a source of personal pride to be part of that effort.”


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