Sandy Miguel never got to see her grandson, who was lost when her daughter suffered a miscarriage four months into her pregnancy.
But the family gave the child a name — Iliahi — and at Monday night’s 15th annual Lantern Floating Hawaii ceremony at Ala Moana Beach Park, Miguel was able to say goodbye to Iliahi in a spectacular yet deeply personal way.
Tens of thousands of residents and visitors turned out for the event, which draws on both the American tradition of honoring fallen military personnel on Memorial Day and the Japanese Obon season, which traditionally closes with the release of lanterns into the ocean to guide the spirits of the dead back to the spirit world. In addition to honoring the dead, the ceremony also serves as a call for global peace and harmony.
Monday’s event, sponsored by Shinnyo-en Hawaii and Na Lei Aloha Foundation, featured Hawaiian and Buddhist chant, taiko drumming, a scattering of flowers and traditional Japanese harmony and purification rites. The evening concluded with the release of some 5,000 glowing lanterns onto the open ocean.
Nearly all of the lanterns bore personal messages to those who have departed.
On her lantern, Miguel, 49, inscribed a simple message to her grandson: "We love you. Heaven needed another angel so you were taken."
She said, "I needed to be here, to experience this. It’s like we’re all one big ohana."
The lantern also served as a memorial to others the family has lost.
Rudy Miguel, 53, paid tribute to three of his siblings who died. He also honored Ed Yamashiro, his old boss at Yamashiro Building Supply.
"It’s awesome to be a part of this," Rudy Miguel said. "There are people from all over, but we’re all here for the same thing. We’ve all lost loved ones. We share common feelings."
Rochelle Crowder, who lives in Orlando, Fla., returned to Hawaii last week to mark the first anniversary of the death of her father, William Ramiscal. On Monday she and the rest of her family staked a spot along the Magic Island parking lot and watched the sunset as they waited for the go-ahead to release a lantern in his honor.
"He was just a great guy," Crowder said of her father, a retired police officer and security guard who died of lung cancer. "He loved music. He was fun to be with. He would have loved this."
While there was no way to verify the organizers’ projection of 40,000 people in attendance, the scale of the event was unquestionably massive, as participants, observers and leftover Memorial Day picnickers packed Ala Moana Beach from sidewalk to seashore and overflowed the Magic Island recreation area.
Shinnyo-en head and officiate Shinso Ito characterized the event as a celebration of cultural, ethnic and religious diversity, and there was ample evidence to support her claim, as girls in American flag bikinis shared walkways with Japanese women in kimonos, and aging tourists with tribal tattoos hummed along to singer Kuana Torres Kahele’s Hawaiian-language rendition of Leonard Cohen’s "Hallelujah."
With a giant stage, towering scaffolding supporting a giant video screen, lights and speakers and hundreds of tents knit closely together, the event could easily have been mistaken for a giant summer music festival, say a particularly somber SXSW.
Not everybody was entirely comfortable with the commercialized feel of the proceedings.
"It is full-blown commercialized," said 29-year-old Nadine Ortega of Ewa Beach. "But even though there are a lot of tourists here and things are kind of blown out of proportion, I think we should take it as it is and remember that this is a day to remember people who have passed on."
In an effort to add another perspective to Memorial Day, Ortega dedicated her lantern to those who lost their lives at the hands of the U.S. military.
"I wanted to keep their memory alive even through they are nameless in history," she said.
Ortega was accompanied by Kelii Nixon, 26, also of Ewa Beach, who devoted his memorial to important figures in Hawaiian history, such as Robert Wilcox, Joseph Nawahi and Queen Liliuokalani, and the struggles they undertook on behalf of the Hawaiian people.
Nearby, 35-year-old Adrian McPherson and his family put the finishing touches on a lantern dedicated to McPherson’s grandfather, who died of cancer in 2005.
The McPhersons moved to Hawaii from San Diego eight months ago.
In that time, McPherson said his young sons, Marcus, Ethan and London, have experienced more culturally than they had during their years on the mainland.
In addition to remembering his grandfather, McPherson said he appreciated the lantern floating ceremony as another opportunity to expose his children to the broad diversity of cultures in Hawaii.
"It’s great to participate in something like this and to remember past family and friends," he said.