[ family Category ]
June 09, 2003

Islanders and Death

I don't mean to start the week off on a morbid note, but I think it's important this post finally makes it's way into cyberspace.

For as long as I can remember, we've always treated our dead relatives as though they were still alive. We spent this past Memorial Day journeying as a family to three separate graveyards, depositing flowers into chipped vases and observing detailed headstones. Each headstone was greeted as though the person were still alive.

The joyous "Hi, Grampa!" was last heard when we could still run up and hug him, but was now being said to his spirit. It's not an ignorance for death, but rather, a love of a memory. If you missed the deceased relative, you'd tell him. If there was a new baby, you'd take the time to introduce the baby to the headstone, telling it "This is your grandpa Fred, little Rachel". It's all in the hopes that wherever that dead loved one may be, he'll hear you.

Since I grew up with the tradition of mingling with the spirits of our deceased loved ones, I always thought of it as normal. What struck me as odd, though, was the abundance of picnickers around the graveyard. I stood in one spot and scanned the entire graveyard and saw more than twenty tarps and tents setup near graves. Maybe someone else might see it as an insane act, but I saw it as a sweet thing. To be able to take time out of your busy life and spend just one more day with a relative you miss dearly is absolutely sweet. To sit next to them, under the shade, and chit-chat about news is a lovely thing.

This tradition could probably be traced back many generations. I think it's safe to say it can also be isolated to being a Hawaii thing. Mainlanders will just think of it as one of the thousands of things we locals do and they'll never understand -- sort of like how they don't understand that no matter how much we locals argue with our relatives, it doesn't mean we love each other any less.

Sadly, the headstone to the right belongs to my grandmother's youngest sister, who passed away before her time. Her husband had apprently not used the money to buy a real headstone, so she has been buried with a shattered brick marking her final resting spot. It's a sad story which pains my heart. I know my mom tried to organize a fundraiser to buy a headstone for her, but no one wanted to participate. We're still trying to get her a decent headstone.

The morale of this post is that we locals have our own way of dealing with loss. Spirits are always with us and their memories embody our hearts. This is what we hope everyone employs in their own life. Just because someone is gone, doesn't mean they're gone forever. Love them as though they were still around -- and always leave loved ones with loving words . . . you never know if it's the last time you'll see them.

Posted by at June 09, 2003 01:22 AM


Posted by Ryan on June 9, 2003 12:27 PM:

When I was a kid, interacting with headstones (or in my family's case, Buddhist "monuments") as if they were the embodiment of the people buried there was just the easiest way to make sense of everything. I still do now, I suppose.

My maternal grandparents are buried in a tiny graveyard in Hawi, a speck of a place near the northern tip of the Big Island. Of all the graveyards I know and have relatives in, it's the most moving and peaceful. Some gravesites seem to have never been visited in the 100-plus years they've been there. Others look like they're tended to almost daily. Visiting with my daughter a while back was a thought-provoking experience, as she read the names on the other graves aloud, and asked about death. Some of the graves, as in most graveyards, were for children...

I agree, though, the almost joyful gathering of families at graveyards, complete with picnic gear, seems distinctly local. Like the headstone is just another beach chair, between the grandkids and the cooler full of lilikoi drink.

I used to think roadside memorials were a local thing, but it turns out to be quite widespread, especially in Hispanic culture.

What has really got me scratching my head, lately, is the practice of putting a dead loved one's name on the back window of a vehicle, usually a van or even ostentatious SUV.

It boggles my mind to see a gaudy, glitter-blue Ford Excursion tearing through traffic with the inscription, "IN LOVING MEMORY - PRECIOUS VILLALOBOS - 1997-2002" on the back. What's the message? We love our car, but we love our dead relative more? Or, thank you, dead relative, for the insurance money that helped us get this thing?

I don't mean to be flip... well, not entirely. Does anyone know where this practice comes from?

Posted by Joy on June 9, 2003 12:59 PM:

I, too, remember spending time at the various cemeteries on the Big Island "visiting" the relatives on occasions such as Mother's Day, Father's Day, Memorial Day, etc. As a child I did not understand the meaning of these visits except that we would light incense, put our hands together in prayer and bow our heads in silence. Also, my dad would spend time cleaning the grass that runneth over the headstones as a sign of respect. I guess I did not truly understand death except that it meant we would not see these relatives.

When I got older, I realized these people were the legacy of my family. I began to piece together who was related to who and how. I can truly say that I did not know the meaning of the cemetery experience until my dad passed away several years ago. Now I want to be one of those people who set up a picnic along side his grave and tell him everything about me that he has seemed to miss since his death. While I think he has missed out, he really hasn't because I know his spirit and strength are with me every day.

Here on the mainland, I have seen a lot of roadside memorials, particulary of people who have died in car or traffic accidents. I'm not sure if it is tied to ethnic culture or to American culture in general. There are some studies about it pertaining to history.

As far as people using their cars as a form of memorial display, I think this is similar to school kids who have t-shirts with memorial inscriptions for their classmates who have passed away. Interestingly enough, I took an education class that touched upon death and teens and the professor said that many children have no concept of death. The major problem is that these children watch movies and see someone getting killed. Then they watch the next movie with the same actor and they aren't dead. The professor said that children don't realize death is final.

I think when children "wear" these memorials, they too do not realize death is final. Getting to my point about cars, I am not sure why people would have such an inscription. Maybe they don't want to forget or maybe they believe the person is not really gone. Personally I don't think my dad would have appreciated me posting his name, birth date and death date on my Honda Civic.

Posted by Albert on June 9, 2003 1:43 PM:

My connection with my family has been so tenuous and infrequent since the age of sixteen that tombstones play almost no role in my memories, although I do recall visiting the grave of my maternal grandmother many years ago.

Cemeteries are fascinating, though. That one which has managed to survive next to TGIF, across from Straub, is especially poignant, as is the seemingly mostly-Chinese one on the #4 bus route from UH past Punahou. (Never have been to Punchbowl, though.)

The car thing I haven't seen and despite the advance notice will no doubt find astonishing if and when I do.

Posted by Sin on June 9, 2003 2:47 PM:

I remember some years ago on Maui (perhaps 1996) there was this kid that got stabbed while trying to stop some guy that was stealing his car. The kid died and because he was a part of a lowrider or performance car club his friends had a convoy/parade in his name the next week and a lot of them had his name on their cars. I think I went back to Maui a couple of years ago and some people still had his name on their car.

Hey, it's their friend and their car, why the hell not? Everyone deals with death in their own way. Personally, I would not do that for a loved one nor would I want a loved one to do that for me. BUT, after my beloved grandfather died last year I have had the strangest urge to do something I have not ever thought of doing to honor him. He was part Chinese and had a chinese nickname that translated into "Black Dragon". And now everytime I pass a tattoo parlor and see a black dragon tattoo I want to get one on my shoulder because I miss him so much. Strange no? Mind you I am not at all the type of person to get a tattoo or piercings or style my hair unusually even. It just seems...appropriate for some reason.

Posted by Ryan on June 9, 2003 3:22 PM:

True, Sin, everyone has their own way of mourning. It wasn't until reading a couple of serious papers on the roadside memorial phenomenon (as Joy noted), for example, that I appreciated it for what it was. Most frequently cited are memorials in Ireland.

No doubt the "In Loving Memory" car decals have a history and meaning that I've just yet to learn about. So for now, it's just an oddity.

Certainly public tributes to fellow racers makes sense. That subculture has a whole host of traditions that we'll probably never understand.

For some reason, I just remembered this tribute, which inspired strong reactions...

Sin, your tattoo inclinations make perfect sense to me. Perhaps a token inking on a shoulder would say what needs to be said without broadcasting it to the world.

It makes me think, also, of how I want to be remembered. Certainly not with vinyl lettering on the back of a minivan, or a beer bash on the side of a highway. Perhaps a scholarship? And, of course, there's organ donation.

Joy's comment, meanwhile, stirred in me a memory I didn't know I had, of helping my family clean my grandfather's grave in Mililani Cemetary. Suddenly I remember the sound of the heavy metal vases being turned into their settings, and the feel of the black marble in the hot sun as we poured water over it. I think it's time I visited again.

Posted by lisa on June 10, 2003 9:33 AM:

I first saw the car decal thing around LA years ago, and supposedly it was gang-related.

I have noticed it around here a lot lately, though.

Posted by Heidi on June 10, 2003 8:26 PM:

All my deceased family members are on the islands. Being that I dont live on the islands anymore, when I do go to the islands, I always make sure I say hello to my deceased family. I put in fresh flowers and talk to them for a bit.
I dont understand why people put their "in loving memory" on their cars, but I feel everyone does things differently. I thought it was sweet. No matter how strange. In my thought is... that person loves the "in memory of.." and thought it would be a nice thing to do. Also Cheyne, I think its sweet that your family wants to buy a new headstone for your grandmother's sister.

Posted by gondy bullsais on December 12, 2004 8:06 PM:

i all ways wanted to know why i was 4 years old i was 1 foot and 8 in and i look at the ground and see my bonga i all ways wanted to know why they smell why so i went to the bar when i was 65 i drink a bloodie mary i drink about 23 of does so after i want to the bar i went to my gramother she's my god mother i ask her why my bonga smell she say it the pow so i say pow she say no you gondy bullsais condess. cool

Post a Comment


Email Address:



Remember info?

« What about us? | O'ahu geek needed »
[ HawaiiAnswers.com - You ask, Hawaii answers. ] [ HawaiiAnswers.com - Hawaii's first online news source. ] [ HawaiiAnswers.com - Let's talk story. ]
Main Page  ::  © 2002-2004 HawaiiStories  ::  E-Mail