Urn thefts become a felony to deter crime without 'closure'

2016-07-16 16:13


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Pearl City - For decades, Lisa Wond visited the above-ground gravesites of relatives in Hawaii.

But her tradition of honouring her ancestors at the sites known as "haka" changed when thieves stole urns holding the ashes of two grandparents, an aunt and uncle.

Wond later learned that someone pried open the heavy stone door of the "haka", took the urns and sold them for $31 to a recycling centre.

"I can't tell you how many nights of sleep I lost, my mother lost," Wond said. "You think this is their final resting place, but it's not."

In response to the crime against Wond and other Hawaii families, the state legislature in May made it a felony to steal an urn containing human remains. The new law requires scrap dealers to get receipts and identification from people attempting to sell such urns, a requirement that was already on the books for people selling beer kegs or copper.

"I think many of us find it hard to believe that people would take an urn," David Ige said as he signed the bill last week. "It sets in motion a process to ensure there is no market for the material of an urn."

In Japanese burial tradition, cremated remains of family members are often placed in urns and interred in above-ground gravesites that sometimes have a door and roof, evoking an image of a little house.

In the case involving Wond's family, whoever took the urns had to use special equipment to pry open the stone door, Wond said. Among the items they left behind were wooden "ihai", a Japanese word for a tablet used to memorialise the spirit of ancestors.

At least 11 states include cemetery or memorial items in metal theft laws that make the first theft a felony, said Mark Carpenter, spokesperson for the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, a lobbying and research association.

Metal theft was a much bigger topic in state legislatures several years ago, when there was a large spike in copper theft attributed to the recession and high value of metals, said Jocelyn Durkay, senior energy policy specialist for the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Urn theft is infrequent, but it is heartbreaking when it does happen, Honolulu police spokesperson Michelle Yu said.

The urns stolen from the gravesite of Wond's relatives have been recovered, but the ashes are still missing, making it painful for Wond to visit the cemetery. Her family used to go several times a month to pay their respects, but "my grandchildren will never be able to do that", she said.

She hopes the new law will spare other families such pain.

"You know how sometimes you want closure to a memory or a situation in life?" said Wayne Nagamine, Wond's cousin. "We got the urns back, but there really is no closure because we don't know what they did to the ashes."

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