Thursday, October 28, 2010

Can a Cemetery Change Your Life?

The Graveyard Rabbit of the Triangle is feeling nostalgic this Thursday evening. She's remembering back to 1996, when, as a student at the University of Hawai'i, she read an article in the local Kailua paper about a cemetery researcher, Nanette Napoleon. She was the creator of the Oahu Cemetery Research Project, and was in the process of documenting over 300 graveyards in the state. This graveyard rabbit, having grown up in the only town in America with a cemetery of it's founding fathers located on the main street of it's downtown, was intrigued.

Back in 1996 one still used phone books, and I quickly looked her up. I sent her a letter, introducing myself and asking if I could assist in the research. Soon, we met, and I spent much of my free time (when I wasn't in school or at work at Mission Houses Museum) wandering around Oahu Cemetery behind Nanette. She was a wealth of knowledge- almost everything I know about monument art and symbolism came from her. She had an amazing grasp of Hawaiian history, and understood it from a unique perspective--- from the point of view of the amazing citizens that lay below the ground at Oahu Cemetery. She told their stories-- and they came alive. I spent about a year with her, doing research for her book Oahu Cemetery: Burial Ground & Historic Site. I wrote letters to descendants, took pictures, spent time at the state library, requested images from publishers, and loved every minute.

My life was never the same. Oahu Cemetery, patterned after Rural Cemeteries of the Victorian variety, is the permanent home to many famous people-- the founder of baseball, Alexander Cartwright, American Missionaries that brought Christianity to Hawai`i, Hawaiian music hall of fame inductees, the list goes on and on; but just as important, are the average citizens, who lived good lives and are laid to rest among the curvy roads and amazing monuments.

Who knew, back then as a college student, that a cemetery could be so full of life? That the caretakers and story tellers that wandered through could bring these citizens back to life-if only for a moment- and interpret their story for the living, over 100 years later?

After I graduated, and left paradise, I looked for historic cemeteries in every community in which I resided. I met with other cemetery buffs, wandered through in groups and on my own, took photos, did rubbings (where permitted), and enjoyed their park-like settings. I have yet to again meet a kindred spirit like Nanette. I'm still in touch with her all of these years later- she opened up a new world to me- and I'm forever grateful.

So, as this graveyard bunny gives tours through Historic Oakwood Cemetery in Raleigh, participants often hear the story of her first introduction to white bronze markers, learn about Oahu Cemetery, and the first real Graveyard Rabbit she ever met... and to whom she owes her passion to today.

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