HONOLULU(KHON2) — Headstones used as flooring in a homeless encampment and dozens of sinkholes. That’s just the latest in an endless string of unacceptable issues discovered as volunteers cleared the cemetery grounds of Sunset Memorial Park in Pearl City on Saturday.
But there is hope on the horizon for the embattled cemetery.
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Heavy machinery, weed whackers and more than a hundred volunteers were hard at work.
For residents like Susy Flaherty, who watched the cemetery sink deeper into disrepair over the years, it’s been a long time coming.
“This is a beautiful day, this is awesome,” Flaherty said.
“It looks so much better now than it did to begin with,” said Jeff Hardin, who took time out of his Saturday to help clean.
For a decade, neglect and legal loopholes prevented anything from being done. And families struggled to get help to resolve the issues.
One of many problems some families faced over the years is that some haven’t been able to find the plots of their loved ones. And for others, when they do, they found sinkholes in its place.
The hope is that will soon be a thing of the past.
On Saturday, 17-year-old Boy Scout Corban Chun, who organized the clean-up for his Eagle Scout project, knew he wanted to be a part of the solution.
“My family figured out that we had kupuna who was buried here,” Chun explained. “So when we came here for the first time, the grass was waist-high, we were falling in holes so, as a family, we decided it would be a good project.”
“I feel good,” Chun said. “Everyone here that’s helping has a connection to this place somehow. I think if we all do a little bit we can make a big difference in the community.”
Chun partnered with the Friends for Sunset Memorial Park Cemetery, a nonprofit made up of residents and people like Maureen Andrade who has multiple family members buried there.
“We’re determined to keep this clean now,” Andrade said.
As a nonprofit, they can get funding to improve the cemetery.
According to Larry Veray, one of the key organizers of the nonprofit, they plan to bring in dirt and level the grounds, pave the road and bring in water.
“Of course, the first priority is to secure the cemetery from the homeless so they don’t continue to desecrate,” Veray said. “As you see in the background, this was a large encampment.”
That encampment, the site of a two large fires in the last year. The most recent blaze on Easter Sunday sent flames stretching as high as a telephone pole.
Clearing the burnt rubble, Veray was disturbed by what they found.
“Seven headstones and there’s two more over there,” he said pointing to the headstones pulled from beneath the rubble.
“I know that where the homeless encampment was, I knew there were graves that were here and of course this is what we see and these were all upside down used as flooring,” he said as tears welled up in his eyes. “It just tears your heart out, it’s really sad. I can’t talk right now.”
More than a dozen headstones were found. Some of them in pieces. Veray said they are going to do everything they can to find out where the headstones came from.
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“But we’re not going to let it happen again,” said Veray.