Grave Concerns

Nanette Napoleon has annotated 50,000 of Hawaii's cemetery markers.

Photo by: Mark Arbeit

Some people will occasionally  stroll through an old cemetery, reading the tombstones. Then there’s Nanette Napoleon, a professional history detective who has spent 25 years among Hawaii’s non-living residents. 

Exploring Island cemeteries started off as a hobby, but when Napoleon saw old, historical graveyards disappearing to make room for development, she began the Cemetery Research Project in 1985 to protect and document them.

Napoleon has since teamed with the Hawaiian Historical Society, the Maui Historical Society and the National Park Service to inventory sites on Kauai, Molokai, Maui and Oahu. “No one has done the island of Hawaii yet; I’m trying to get to that.” She estimates that there are 800 cemeteries in the state, 300 on Oahu alone.

She found that cemeteries don’t vary between islands, but rather by ethnic group and religion. Chinese cemeteries, for example, face the ocean or a river, and are on a hill, in line with feng shui beliefs.

Japanese cemeteries, many of which feature Buddhist believers, contain ashes rather than coffins. “The markers, or haka, are marble or granite, with a door, and you put the urn inside.” Protestant missionary cemeteries feature stone shipped in from the East Coast, and have plain, religious epitaphs. Still, one thing is consistent: “The belief in spirits and the afterworld is a universal thing among humans.”   

Many grave markers are blue stone or basalt, natural materials found in Hawaii. “In the Plantation era, the late 1800s, they used a lot of wooden crosses and other shapes, but those don’t last.”

When she’s documenting a cemetery, Napoleon takes notes on the inscription data on the tombstones. “Name, birth date, death date, family relationship, such as ‘Mother’ or ‘Father.’”

Overall, she finds grave markers run the gamut from heartbreaking to humorous, historically significant to just plain interesting. 

Some list jobs or accomplishments, like “swam in the Olympics.” Still others have darker reminders of the kind of death that befell the individual. Napoleon particularly remembers a grave in Hilo that had just a name, date and the ominous inscription “murdered.”

  • Want information about your ancestors? Napoleon’s cemetery research is available as directories in major libraries and at the state archives. For more, visit
  • If you want to explore a cemetery, she recommends Oahu Cemetery, 2162 Nuuanu Ave. (Napoleon wrote a book, Oahu Cemetery, about it.) It’s got it all: gravestones going back to the 1840s, prominent “residents” and an incredible collection of markers in all shapes and sizes. For a photo gallery and history of some of the grave stones, visit

Nanette Napoleon will be giving a spooky nighttime graveyard tour on Oct. 25. “Creatures will appear,” she promises. Hopefully, these are creatures in costume that she’s hired, but, hey, take your chances. Call 261-0705; limited to 40 people. 

The Mission Houses Museum will also host an evening of creepy, seasonal activities on Oct. 31, from 7:30 to 9 p.m. Senior curator Elizabeth Nosek and costumed guides first take you through the house via lantern light, then Nanette Napoleon will escort you though the Mission Houses Cemetery. Tickets are $15, one adult free with each paid child admission. Reservations are required.