Sensitivity mantra of project to refurbish vets’ gravesites

More than 1,500 gravesites at Makawao Veterans Cemetery will be refurbished and brought up to national veterans cemetery standards in a yearlong project expected to begin later this month, a state veterans official said.

The $1.1 million grave restoration project, recently awarded to BCP Construction of Hawaii, involves raising, realigning and cleaning headstones and resodding gravesites, said Ronald P. Han Jr., the director of Hawaii State Veterans Services.

The project, which follows a similar two-year restoration program at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific at Punchbowl on Oahu, will follow Veterans Affairs National Cemetery Administration standards and “realigns the graves, makes them straight and orderly,” Han said.

Currently, gravestones sit at differing heights and are not precisely in alignment with others in the row, said Han. Some of the gravestones at the cemetery, which held its first burial in January 1951, also have weathered over time, he noted.

In keeping with the standards, Han noted that there will be only one vase per grave. Exceptions will be granted for grave markers that have cemented vases around the marker, which were put in many decades ago. Those vases will be left in place because removal could threaten the gravestone, he said.

“How do you replace a grave marker that was placed 50 years ago?. . . . It’s not the family’s fault that these things are changing,” Han explained.

“Trying to be sensitive” to the families is a mantra of this project, he said.

Most of the headstones were purchased by the federal government, said Han. The two main styles are the upright headstones in granite or marble and flat markers in granite, marble and bronze, according to the National Cemetery Administration.

But Han said that there are five different types of headstones in the 63-year-old cemetery along Baldwin Avenue, some of which are not in inventory anymore. Some “look very old” and may have been purchased by family.

“We don’t want to disturb the intent of why those headstones are there,” he said.

New burials will continue as usual at the cemetery but sections undergoing refurbishment will be blocked to visiting families and cordoned off for safety reasons, said Han.

The contractor will be working on clusters of about 500 gravesites at a time, with each section taking about three months to complete with the sodding, said Han. A total of 1,554 headstones – about two-thirds of the 2,400 gravesites at the 7-acre cemetery – and 132,000 square feet of turf on the northern half of the cemetery will be renovated.

“We are requesting additional federal funding in 2014 to complete the rest of this cemetery,” he said, noting that the Maui cemetery is one of five in the state undergoing the restoration work.

Since late 2012, the National Cemetery Administration, the state Office of Veterans Services, the county and design consultant AECOM have been planning and working on the project, Han said.

Paul Laub, president of the Maui County Veterans Council, was concerned about families not being able to visit the gravesites of their loved ones. Many are older folks in their 70s and 80s, some coming from as far as Lahaina.

“You come up there, and you can’t go there. . . . I find that to be very frustrating,” he said.

Han said that his agency will be nailing down dates, putting out public service announcements and being as transparent as possible. Work is expected to begin in mid-February.

Noting that he has family members buried at Makawao Veterans Cemetery, Han said, “I don’t want to be surprised or shocked too.”

“It is a beautiful cemetery,” Han said. “We just want to bring some enhancements.”

The cemetery, which is nearing capacity, is still on track to add another 10 acres, Han said. Last spring, Gov. Neil Abercrombie released $5 million for the expansion, which is projected to add more than 14,000 new gravesites and niches, an environmental assessment said.

State officials have said that they hope to begin construction this year.

* Lee Imada can be reached at