The sky wasn’t blue the day I visited Keawala’i Churchyard, but that was okay. My mom was recovering from surgery that removed melanoma from her upper arm, leaving her with a hole the size of a bar of soap. They’d gotten all the cancer and it wouldn’t spread, but we didn’t know that yet. We were being very careful to stay out of the sun as much as we could.
We’d spent our trip to Hawaii rushing around. Mom liked to take tours, so we’d taken a bus around Oahu and visited the Iolani Palace. On Maui, we’d been to a former sugar plantation, the whaling museum, and on a whale watch. Now that our trip was winding down, I’d finally talked Mom into sitting on the beach. We were on our way to Makena’s Big Beach when we found the little cemetery.
Mom knows how I am. She got me started visiting cemeteries. Now she visits them in my name when she’s traveling and takes pictures for me. That day on Maui, she was content to let me wander from gravestone to gravestone, photographing everything that caught my eye.
I found a section that held only tiny plaques. At first I thought they were remembrances of people whose ashes had been scattered in the ocean. Then I realized they commemorated people who had been lost at sea.
I stood just inside the rough lava rock wall and looked out at the water. I tried to envision the globe, with Hawaii as a series of specks in the large blue ocean. Until that moment, I’d avoided thinking how fragile life is.
I turned and looked immediately for my mom. The darkness had come so close to taking her from me, but I wasn’t ready to let her go yet.
Keawala’i Congregational Church
5300 Makena Road
Makena, Maui, Hawaii 96753
Telephone: 808-879-5557 Founded: 1832 Size: small Number of interments: 100? Church office hours: Wednesday – Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
South of the Wailea Shopping Village, as you head toward Big Beach with its view of Molokini across the water, Makena Road narrows and draws closer to the ocean. Between the blacktop and the water stands a low wall of rough black lava stones, which surrounds Keawala’i Churchyard.
Grave of Elisa and Susie
Keawala’i Church is one of a dozen missionary churches remaining on Maui from the mid-1800s. The churches ringed the island, each a full day’s horse-ride from the next. Itinerant preachers traveled the circuit, visiting each church in turn to bring the gospel to the Hawaiians. When the Keawala’i congregation was founded in 1832, they built their original church of pili grass. The current building dates from 1855, making it the oldest surviving church on Maui according to some sources.
Keawala’i Church was built in a low New England style with a wood-shingled steeple rising from its peaked roof. Hawaiians fashioned the church out of lava rock mortared together with white coral and faced inside with native koa wood. Its walls are three feet thick.
When Architects Maui, a preservationist outfit, replaced the original 84-year-old floor, they discovered “sensitive cultural remnants” beneath it. In order to protect the “historic materials below,” they built a new floor of native ohia hardwood four inches above where the old one had rested. The church asks that you remove your shoes before entering.
Keawala’i Church appears in guidebooks mostly in connection with wedding planning. Its Congregationalist minister will perform ceremonies—partially in Hawaiian—after he meets any bride and groom. One of the wedding planners set me off when she directed, “Don’t let the cemetery intimidate you, as most churches have them on their sites.”
Waymarking.com says that the cemetery has graves dating back to the founding of the church. The palm tree-shaded little graveyard felt very peaceful to me. A lava stone breakwater shields it on the ocean side, but the surf made a low, sweet accompaniment as I walked amongst the tombstones. Most monuments are simple upright blocks on a granite riser or two, surrounded by a cement curb. Many of the stones have ceramic portraits attached to their faces. One of my favorites was David Kimohewa’s, in which he propped a guitar on his knee. He looked like a very genial man.
On the very edge of the land cluster small plaques set flush with the ground. These plaques remember people lost at sea: fishermen, divers, surfers, children, old men, people for whom the families had no bodies to bury.
The congregation welcomes visitors to their churchyard, but they ask visitors to respect their ancestors and refrain from stepping or sitting on the graves. It’s a lovely little place that gives a taste of what life in the islands is really like.
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