Of the many stories of loss and change that surround the lava flow moving to isolate parts of Pāhoa, few rival the story of the Buddhist cemetery just outside town The century-old graveyard is home to primarily Japanese immigrants, many of whom worked in the sugar cane fields that once bordered the town. HPR’s Molly Solomon visited Pāhoa last week and has this story of one family’s history, forever changed by the lava.
Last month, Aiko Sato carried a bucket of red ginger to her car. She was heading out to the Pāhoa Japanese Cemetery to pay respect to the graves of her ancestors…part of her weekly ritual…but this time was different. The slow-moving lava heading towards town now had the cemetery in its path. “Something told me, I had to go,” says Aiko.
Hawai‘i County Civil Defense had already blocked the main road. But after hearing Aiko’s story, a state official agreed to drive her out to see the graves. “And he let me take my time,” recalls Aiko. “I was able to place flowers at the family grave. And I felt relief, because I knew that would probably be the final time. And I guess it was.”
The next day, Aiko woke up to find the cemetery has been overrun, taken by lava overnight. “They had national news about the lava going over the cemetery,” she said. “I cried, because I figured probably the Sato grave went.”
“I always thought the cemetery would not be covered by the lava,” says Aiko’s aunt, Eiko Kujiyama, who lives down the street with her son. She remembers the phone call from Aiko that morning, telling her the cemetery was gone. “When she called me, I was shocked to hear it was covered - so sad! Every time I prayed, don’t take the cemetery and please spare Pāhoa."
The loss means something extra to the Sato family. Aiko’s father, Hiroo Sato, spent most of his life caring for the graves of Japanese immigrants buried at the Pāhoa Japanese Cemetery, filled with people who built the town including his parents and two siblings. He’s also known for writing the book, Pāhoa Yesterday, a historical account of the town’s early years. Evidence of his extensive research on the former sugar cane town, are scribbled on pieces of paper Aiko is carefully packing away. “These are all of his things,” she says. “The last of his manuscripts I sent out. All of his other tidbits of information, that went earlier”
Aiko clears a pile of papers from the dining room table as movers carry a set of chairs down to the carport. She’s evacuating the family home in case the lava takes a turn. Her once crowded living room is now empty, except for an ottoman and the TV.
At a community meeting last week, a scientist with the USGS approached Aiko and her aunt with news about the family grave.
“Everything was up in the air as to whether the grave was still standing,” she said. “But at the lava update meeting we found out the grave had survived.” Aiko pulls out the photo clearly showing the family tombstone surrounded by black lava. “Sato, the family name, is still distinct. To see the lava completely around the gravestone -- it’s like a miracle.”
I ask Aiko what her father would say, knowing the grave he so diligently cared for had survived. “It would bring him a lot of joy and happiness, knowing that it’s still there.”
And at this point, so is Aiko. With the family grave secure, she hopes to stay in the home her family has lived in for generations.