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Gravemarker Preservation at Kalaupapa National Historical Park

April 11, 2013

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 gravemarkers.  Twelve hundred historic gravemarkers exist in the Park.   This project is part of continuous program of gravemarker recording, assessment, and preservation begun in the Park in 2003.  “Cemeteries and gravemarkers are a significant and unique historic property type worthy of its own dedicated management program, as are the Archaeology, Ethnography, and Museum Collections programs. The gravemarkers 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.” Erika Stein, Cultural Resources Program Manager

The tombs which 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 Emily and Richard have considerable experience using historic lime based mortars; each has received training through the National Park Service’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 Emily and Richard 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.  The responsibility for ensuring the reverence due the gravemarkers 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.” –Emily Harte

“Kalaupapa symbolizes the triumph of the human spirit over extreme hardship.  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.” -Richard Miller

Written by Richard Miller, Exhibits Specialist, Kalaupapa NHP

2 Comments leave one →
  1. James Wilson permalink
    March 10, 2014 12:24 pm

    I volunteered to work several years ago under the guidance of Richard Miller in trimming back the weeds and other tropical growth around these many gravestones. It is a perennial task that needs to be done and it introduced me to the fascinating story of Kalaupapa and its still living patient survivors. What a life experience! Maybe I volunteer again sometime.
    James Axel Wilson, Haines, Alaska.

    • Pacific Island Ranger permalink*
      March 10, 2014 7:13 pm

      Mahalo for sharing! Aloha

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