The Kawaiaha'o Churchyard is located at 957 Punchbowl Street in Honolulu, Hawai'i. The church here was a product of the Mission Church movement that began in Boston, Massachusetts in 1819. The inside of the church is beautiful and it's easy to understand how some refer to it as Hawai'i's Westminster Abbey. Here there was a beginning. And it represents the end for many Hawaiians. Some are well known, others who are buried here have no name or headstone. Join us as we explore Oahu's Kawaiaha'o Churchyard!
Before we talk about the changes that Christianity brought to the Hawaiian Islands in regards to religious beliefs and burial practices, let's examine what was practiced there originally. Traditional Hawaiian beliefs were based on mana. Mana was in all things from animals to people and even places. People's actions could affect their mana and maintaining balance was essential. There were two ways to increase one’s mana, and this was through violence and through sexual means. The forces of nature were personified as the main gods of Ku (God of War), Kane (God of Light and Life), Kanaloa (God of Death), and Lono (God of peace). When a Hawaiian died, there were several interment practices and these included Exposure for people who had no family to take care of the remains, Cremation which was used as a type of punishment, Sea/Freshwater Disposal was used if the individual’s family guardian spirit was a sea animal, Volcanic Pit Disposal, Cave Disposal, Sand and Earth burial, which was most common, Cists, Monuments, burying the person under the house or burial in a Heiau, which was a temple.
Kawaiaha’o Church was at one time the national church of the Hawaiian Kingdom. The church was also the chapel of the royal family. The name comes from the Hawaiian phrase Ka wai a Haʻo, which means the water of Haʻo, because the church was built near a spring and freshwater pool in the
care of High Chieftess Haʻo. The church has become known as Hawaiʻi's Westminster Abbey. The beginnings of the church with the royal family started with King Kamehameha III who ordered the original sanctuary to be built. That building was designed by Rev. Hiram Bingham in the New England style of the
Hawaiian missionaries. Construction began in 1836 and was completed in 1842. The building was thatched with grass and 14,000 thousand-pound slabs of coral rock quarried from an offshore reef
on the southern coast of Oʻahu were used for the structure. To quarry that rock, Hawaiian divers dove three to six
metres below sea-level to chisel out each coral block with hand tools. The upper gallery of the church has 21 portraits of Hawaiian royalty (Aliʻi).
Kamehameha III was Hawai'i's longest reigning monarch and he ascended to the throne when he was only nine. He shared his rule initially with Ka`ahumanu, who was the favorite wife of Kamehameha I. She had announced after her husband's death that he had wished for her to share governance over the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi with his 22-year-old son Liholiho, who became Kamehameha II. A council of advisors created a new position for her called kuhina nui, which was similar to a modern-day prime minister. She then went on to co-regent with Kamehameha III. She was thought to be ahead of her time and she pushed for more rights for the Hawaiian women.
There was a period of rebellion during the rule of Kamehameha III and this caused him to look towards the government of the West for guidance in how to move forward. It was through him that Hawai'i began to move from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy. This was made formal with the signing of Hawai'i's first constitution in 1840. This established a declaration of rights and a judicial and executive branch of government. Later, he pushed a system of land ownership under the Mahele of 1848. His reign was described as "The age of Kamehameha III was that of progress and of liberty—of schools and of civilization. He gave us a Constitution and fixed laws; he secured the people in the title to their lands, and removed the last chain of oppression. He gave them a voice in his councils and in the making of the laws by which they are governed. He was a great national benefactor, and has left the impress of his mild and amiable disposition on the age for which he was born."
For a time, Kamehameha III practiced Christianity, then he mingled in Hawaiian spiritual practices and then he returned to the Christian system with the building of Kawaiahaʻo Church. He would begin the tradition of the chiefs of the Hawaiian Islands coming to the church. Missionaries were the ones to bring the Christian faith and traditions to Hawai'i and they also brought the tradition of marked burials inside a fenced churchyard. So the Kawaiahaʻo Church was built with its own churchyard. No one is sure of how many people are buried here. There are 296 headstones and around 200 unmarked gravesites, but some believe there are as many as 600 bodies in the churchyard. This estimation comes from the idea that more than one body can be buried under many of the headstones. Early converts could not afford tombstones and so they may have been buried with someone else or in an unmarked grave. The tombstones bear the names of Hawaiians as well as Haole, or white, names of people coming from places as far-flung as Ireland, England,
Germany, and Nova Scotia.
Among the graves in the churchyard lie several missionaries. One of these is Hiram Bingham Jr., the son of the man who designed Kawaiaha’o Church. He was born in Honolulu and continued the work of his father. He authored a native language dictionary, as well as a translation of the Bible. Fun Facts: His son, Hiram Bingham III, was an explorer who became a US Senator and Governor of Connecticut. He re-discovered the largely forgotten Inca city of Machu Picchu. His grandson, Hiram Bingham IV, was the US Vice Consul in Marseille, France during World War II and he rescued Jews from the Holocaust.
Another missionary was James Kekela, known as Kekela O Ka Lani. He was ordained in 1849 making him the first Hawaiian Christian minister. As a missionary, he went to the Marquesas Islands in 1853 and spent 49 years there preaching against cannibalism and tribal warfare. And about that cannibalism, President Abraham Lincoln recognized him in 1861 for rescuing an American seaman from cannibals. His marker reads, "O ke aloha, ota ka mole o na, Mea fono ame na mea oiaio a pau," which translates to "Love is the root of all that is good and true."
King Lunalilo was the sixth monarch in Hawai'i. He was known as the
People's King, but ruled for a very short period of time. His rule only
lasted from January 8, 1873 until February 3, 1874. Lunalilo was elected as king at Kawaiaha’o Church in 1873, after
Kamehameha V died without naming an heir. He contracted tuberculosis and so only served 13 months
before dying. The King did not want to be buried in the Royal Mausoleum
where Hawaii's two prominent royal families, the Kamehameha Dynasty and
the Kalākaua Dynasty, are laid to rest, so he is buried in the
courtyard. His tomb was one of the earliest concrete block buildings in Hawaii and stands
near his mother’s grave on the northwest side of the churchyard.
Sanford Ballard Dole was a lawyer in the Hawaiian Islands who advocated for Hawai'i to move towards Westernization. He helped orchestrate the overthrow of Queen Liliukolani. She took the throne in 1891 and would be the final Hawaiian monarch. The Hawaiian constitution at that time had given much of the monarchy over to an elite class of mostly American businessmen and wealthy landowners. The Queen restored the previous monarch powers and a U.S. military-backed coup deposed her in 1893. A provisional government was then formed and in 1894, Hawaii was declared a republic. Queen Liliuokalani signed a formal abdication in 1895. Dole would serve as President of the Republic of Hawaii between 1894 and 1898 and then he became Governor of the Hawaiian Territory after its annexation by the United States in 1898. His cousin James founded the Dole Pineapple Company and is buried on Maui.
David Douglas was a botanist for the Hudson Bay Company and he cataloged plants all throughout the Northwest. The Douglas Fir is actually named for him. He came to Hawaii in 1833 to study its plants and in a freak accident, he fell into a pit that was dug for capturing wild animals and it killed him. A plaque on the church wall is dedicated to his memory and his body is buried somewhere unknown in the churchyard.
The Kawaiaha'o Churchyard offers a tropical paradise as a final resting place for many prominent people who met their end in Hawai'i. The church and graveyard are a historic marker of the changing religious beliefs in Hawai'i as well. And here was just a little about the stones and bones found there.