957 Punchbowl Street at King Street
Honolulu, Hawaii 96813-5042
Telephone: (808) 522-1333
Church founded: 1820
Oldest known burial: 1825
Size: 3 acres
Number of interments: more than 900
A product of the original Mission Church movement founded in Boston in 1819, Kawaiaha’o Church is descended from the first Christian church to be built on Oahu in 1820. The original sanctuary was thatched with grass and built by order of Kamehameha III, who also gave Reverend Hiram Bingham land nearby to build a house. That house, which Bingham had shipped around Cape Horn from Boston, survives today in the Mission Houses Museum.
The first church on Oahu was built at an oasis around a spring, which still flows, in the midst of what was then a desert. The spring was cared for by a Hawaiian High Chiefess named Ha’o, so the church’s Hawaiian name means “water of Ha’o.” To this day, the church offers services in the Hawaiian language.
Excavation of the present church’s foundation began in 1838. Sometime prior to this, Hawaiian divers began to quarry 14,000 blocks of ocean coral, each weighing up to 1,000 pounds. These were loaded into canoes and ferried to Honolulu, where Hawaiians constructed the New England-style church to Bingham’s specifications. The dedication service took place in 1842.
Along with Christianity, the missionaries brought a tradition of marked burials inside a fenced churchyard. Early converts could not afford tombstones. A 2006 story in the Honolulu Star Bulletin estimated that there were at least 200 unmarked gravesites in the churchyard. At that time, 600 bodies had been already identified. The remaining 296 headstones may mark the graves of more than one person, according to cemetery historian Nanette Napoleon Purnell.
One of the oldest Western-style burial grounds in Hawaii, Kawaiaha’o Churchyard serves as the final resting place of King Lunalilo. His tomb, one of the earliest concrete block buildings in Hawaii, stands near his mother’s grave on the northwest side of the churchyard. Lunalilo was invested as king at Kawaiaha’o Church in 1873, after Kamehameha V died without naming an heir. Lunalilo served only 13 months before dying of tuberculosis, a disease brought to the islands by outsiders.
Among the graves in the churchyard lie several missionaries, including Hiram Bingham Jr., who was born nearby and who authored a native language dictionary, as well as a translation of the Bible.
Another missionary, James Kekela (also known as Kekela O Ka Lani), became the first Hawaiian Christian minister when he was ordained in 1849. In 1853, he went as a pioneer missionary to the Marquesas Islands where, for 49 years, he preached against cannibalism and tribal warfare. President Abraham Lincoln recognized him in 1861 for rescuing an American seaman from cannibals.
Also buried in Kawaiaha’o Churchyard is Sanford Ballard Dole, who orchestrated the overthrow of Queen Liliukolani and the end of the Hawaiian monarchy. Dole served as President of the Republic of Hawaii between 1894 and 1898, when he became Governor of the Hawaiian Territory after its annexation by the United States. His cousin James founded the Dole Pineapple Company and is buried on Maui.
Somewhere amongst the unmarked graves lies David Douglas, for whom the Douglas Fir is named. He worked as a botanist for the Hudson Bay Company, cataloging plants in the Northwest. He came to Hawaii in 1833 to study its plants and fell to his death in a pit dug for capturing wild animals. A plaque on the church wall is dedicated to his memory.
Surviving tombstones in the churchyard bear Hawaiian names as well as Haole (white) names, with origins as far away as Ireland, England, Germany, and Nova Scotia, or as close as Lahaina (Maui) or Kona (the “Big Island” of Hawaii).
Despite the church being considered Hawaii’s “Westminster Abbey” — because Hawaiian monarchs, chiefs, and their families attended the Kawaiaha’o Congregational Church’s services, were married there, and laid in state there — and appearing on the original National Register of Historic Places, the churchyard has not been accorded similar respect.
In 2006, a public board meeting convened to discuss demolishing an old structure and the possibility of exhuming remains in order to build a wedding reception area over part of the churchyard. Construction halted in 2009 after 69 sets of remains had been unearthed, but crews continued again in 2011. As of last week, two lawsuits remain unsettled and the project is in limbo.
According to a 1/13/12 story in the Honolulu Civil Beat, “The church argued that the burial remains, discovered during construction, are exempt from the state’s Native Hawaiian burial law because the remains are Christian burials of Hawaiians located primarily in a church cemetery.” If I read that correctly, it’s saying that these people stopped being Native Hawaiians when they became Christian.
Kawaiaha’o Church’s website
Satellite map of the church and its surroundings
An overview of all Honolulu’s cemeteries
Other Hawaiian cemeteries on Cemetery Travel:
Week #3: Seamen’s Cemetery in Lahaina, Maui
Week #44: USS Arizona Memorial, Pearl Harbor, Oahu