Sacred Burial Practices

by Betty Fullard-Leo 

Heiau and Pu'uhonua O Honaunau (Place of Refuge at Honaunau), Hawaii. The house was the "Haleokeawe" the depository of the bones of the Kings. The heiau and the Place of Refuge are now preserved by the National Park Service and is open to the public. Drawaing by William Ellis, 1825. Click Here for Ellis's account of Hawaiian burials

Speculation ran rampant after two ancient caskets containing the bones of Big Island ali'i, King Liloa and his great grandson, Lonoikamakahiki, disappeared from O'ahu's Bishop Museum in February 1994. The caskets, or ka'ai, made of woven sennit, stood 31 and 35 inches tall and in shape, roughly resembled the human form. Until today, the whereabouts of the ka'ai, which date from the late 1500s, remain a mystery, though whispers in the local community indicate the royal bones may have been returned to their original resting place in Waipi'o Valley.

Death in old Hawai'i, particularly the death of a high chief, was not an event to be taken lightly. In mourning, relatives and close friends would weep copiously, and chant to eulogize the deceased. They might hack away their hair close to the sides of their head leaving only a crest down the middle, knock out a front incisor with a stick or stone, scar their skin with burning twigs, or in rare cases, even cut off an ear. Reverend William Ellis, in the early 1800s, wrote of seeing Queen Kamamalu endure great pain while having a line tattooed on her tongue after the death of her husband, Liholiho. When Ellis asked her about the pain, she responded, "The pain is indeed great, but the pain of my grief is greater."

Corpses were treated with respectful ceremony in preparation for internment, as it was believed the bones, the iwi, of the dead held great mana, divine power, that contributed to the natural order of life, and could benefit whomever possessed his ancestor's bones.

Remains of bodies uncovered in the last century have revealed a variety of burial methods, depending on the island and the area of burial and on whether the deceased was a commoner (maka'ainana); or royalty, ali'i. The skull, leg, and sometimes the arm bones of kings, in particular, were preserved, hidden or guarded. Hawaiian historian David Malo left written descriptions of the bodies of ali'i being wrapped in banana, taro and paper mulberry leaves, then buried in shallow graves in the shrine area of the men's eating house. While a priest chanted, fire burned over the body for ten days. The body was exhumed, and the flesh and soft parts were peeled away and deposited in the sea. The remaining skull and long bones were wrapped in tapa and arranged in a sitting position on a shrine. While the priest prayed, the dead king was believed to transform into a god. The successor king then returned from exile to have his followers build a new house where a sennit casket was woven for the bones of the deceased.

Houses where the king's bones were kept have been annotated only on the Big Island: in Waipi'o Valley, where Hale o Liloa (house of Liloa), is thought to have been constructed in 1575, and at Pu'uhonua o Honaunau (popularly known as "The City of Refuge"). Waipi'o's Hale o Liloa is lost to history, though if rumor is to be believed, the bones of Liloa and Lonoikamakahiki (respectively father and son of the great King 'Umi) may once again reside in the vicinity.

Hale o Keawe at Honaunau, built in 1740, was ordered destroyed by Queen Ka'ahumanu in 1830, after her conversion to Christianity. It has since been reconstructed and the whole complex is open to visitors. In 1821, Reverend Ellis was denied entry to the sacred hale (house) where bones were kept but was able to peer through an opening to leave the following description in his book, A Hawaiian Tour: "We looked in and saw many images, some of wood, very much carved, others of red feathers, with wide distended mouths, large rows of shark's teeth, and glaring pearl-shell eyes. We also saw several bundles, apparently of human bones, cleaned, carefully tied up with cinet (sic) made of cocoa-nut fibres, and placed in different parts of the house, together with some rich shawls and other valuable articles, probably worn by those to whom the bones belonged, as the wearing apparel and other personal property of the chiefs is generally buried with them."

Interestingly, when Captain Cook was killed at Kealakekua in 1779, his body was treated with high honor, giving some credence to the tale that Hawaiians thought he was a returning god-or at least a man of great mana. According to journal entries by Cook's second lieutenant James King, which include details relayed to him by a Hawaiian chief that King refers to as "Eappo," Captain Cook's body was burned, and three chiefs were given the skull and long bones. These were later returned to Captain Clerke for return to England carefully wrapped in tapa and covered with a black and white spotted feather cloak.

Captain Cook's hands, one easily recognizable by a nasty scar between the thumb and forefinger, were also in the bundle. The hands were still covered with flesh, though deep slashes filled with salt for preservation were evident in several places.

Commoners, and, it is thought, some chiefs might also be buried in sand dunes, in the earth near their dwellings, and in burial caves. On Kaua'i, stone cists lined with river pebbles have been excavated, while on Lanai, the late Doctor Kenneth Emory, chairman of anthropology at Bishop Museum, noted earthen platform tombs paved with stones and coral where bundles of bones were interred.

Bodies buried in these places were either laid extended straight out and wrapped in tapa, or else were in a flexed position. According to historian Malo, "A rope was attached to the joints of the legs then being passed about the neck, was drawn taut until the knees touched the chest. The body was then done up in a rounded shape and at once closely wrapped in tapa and made ready for burial." Other bodies were disemboweled and filled with salt in order to preserve them for a longer time before burial.

Archaeologists have surmised that bodies buried in sand dunes, such as have been found at Mokapu on Windward O'ahu, Keauhou on the Big Island and Kapalua on Maui, were primarily those of warriors engaged in battle, a theory that has come into question as the remains of females and small children have been uncovered in some of these same areas.

Burial caves have been found on every Hawaiian Island. Unfortunately, by the time many of the caves were catalogued by authorities, they had already been discovered earlier and looted. Most chiefly families are believed to have had their own secret burial caves, the location of which was closely guarded by the kahu, or family retainer. Sometimes stone walls that looked like the surrounding cliffs were cleverly constructed to hide a cave entrance. At Ka'awaloa, Hawai'i, entrances to burial caves still can be spotted high on the cliffs of a bluff known as Pali Kapu o Keoua.

Bodies deep within the caves were frequently found in the flexed position, while those nearer the entrance were extended, possibly indicating a change in burial customs after missionaries arrived in the 19th century. The remains of stretchers, half canoes and bamboo torches indicate the difficulty of transporting bodies to these hidden high caves.

In more modern times, after Kamehameha II (Liholiho) and his Queen Kamamalu died in London in 1825 and their bodies were brought back to Honolulu, a grand procession of Hawaiian people dressed in black, some with elaborate feather cloaks, escorted the caskets to a temporary mausoleum at Bishop Museum. Kahilis, 30-foot staffs topped with a cylinder of crimson, red or green feathers with handles of tortoise shell and ivory, waved gently in the trade winds as the procession moved along city streets. Today, the remains of Liholiho and Kamamalu are interred with those of other ali'i at the Royal Mausoleum in Nu'uanu on O'ahu.

Since 1990, when President Bush signed the Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act protecting Native American burial sites, a group called Hui Malama I Na Kupuna o Hawai'i Nei (Caring for the Elders of Hawai'i), has been successful in arranging the return of native Hawaiian remains stored in Mainland research institutions, including the Smithsonian Institution, Yale, Harvard, the University of California-Berkeley's Hearst Museum and other locales. Hui Malama members have been instrumental in reinterring these bones according to Hawaiian custom, which includes transporting the bones at night under strict secrecy.

On the Island of Hawai'i, the Hawai'i Island Burial Council, under the chairmanship of Puna Lerma, oversees customs concerning reinterment. Says Lerma, "Showing respect, lokahi, for our ancestors is a way of making things right, of being pono. It involves three dimensions: the unseen realm of the gods, our aumakua; the level of humans; and the earth itself. If any of these levels are in disarray or in chaos, life on earth will be unstable. We have to get our ancestors planted in the ground where they belong. They form the foundation for everything that is living. Because they were here before us and have been here longer, they deserve respect. They in turn, take care of us and influence the natural forces that take care of each family."

When pressed, Lerma concludes softly, "Let's put it this way, I believe the ka'ai are back in Waipi'o, where they belong."

Hawaiian Methods of Internment

From the Journal of William Ellis

William Ellis

We were desirous of witnessing the interment of the person who died last night, but were disappointed; it was, as most of their funerals are, performed in secret. A few particulars, relative to their mode of burying, we have been able to gather from the people of this place and other parts of the island. The bones of the legs and arms, and sometimes the skull, of their kings and principal chiefs, those who were supposed to have descended from the gods, or were to be deified, were usually preserved, as already noticed. The other parts of the body were burnt or buried, while these bones were either bound up with cinet, wrapped in cloth, and deposited in temples for adoration, or distributed among the immediate relatives, who, during their lives, always carried them wherever they went. This was the case with the bones of Tamehameha; and it is probable that some of his bones were brought by his son Rihoriho on his recent visit to England, as they supposed that so long as the bones of the deceased were revered, his spirit would accompany them, and exercise a super natural guardianship over them. They did not wash the bodies of the dead, as was the practice with some of the South Sea Islanders. The bodies of priests, and chiefs of inferior rank, were laid out straight, wrapped in many folds of native tapa, and buried in that posture; the priests generally within the precincts of the temple in which they had officiated.

A pile of stones, or a circle of high poles, surrounded their grave, and marked the place of their interment. It was only the bodies of priests, or persons of some importance, that were thus buried.

The common people committed their dead to the earth in a most singular manner. After death, they raised the upper part of the body, bent the face forwards to the knees, the hands were next put under the hams, and passed up between the knees, when the head, hands, and knees were bound together with cinet or cord. The body was afterwards wrapped in a coarse mat, and buried the first or second day after its decease. They preferred natural graves whenever available, and selected for this purpose caves in the sides of their steep rocks, or large subterranean caverns.

Sometimes the inhabitants of a village deposited their dead in one large cavern, but in genleral each family had a distinct sepulchral cave. Their artificial graves were either simple pits dug in the earth, or large enclosures. One of the latter, which we saw at Keahou, was a space surrounded with high stone walls, appearing much like an ancient heiau or temple. We proposed to several natives of the village to accompany us on a visit to it, and give us an outline of its history; but they appeared startled at the thought, said it was a wahi ino, (place evil), filled with dead bodies, and objected so strongly to our approaching it, that we deemed it inexpedient to make our intended visit. Occasionally they buried their dead in sequestered places, at a short distance from their habitations, but frequently in their gardens, and sometimes in their houses. Their graves were not deep, and the bodies were usually placed in them in a sitting posture.

No prayer was offered at the grave, except occasionally by the inhabitants of Oahu. All their interments are conducted without any ceremony, and are usually managed with great secrecy. We have often been surprised at this, and believe it arises from the superstitious dread the people entertain respecting the places where dead bodies are deposited, which they believe resorted to by the spirits of those buried there. Like most ignorant and barbarous nations, they imagine that apparitions are frequently seen, and often injure those who come in their way. Their funerals take place in the night, to avoid observation; for we have been told, that if the people were to see a party carrying a dead body past their houses, they would abuse them, or even throw stones at them, for not taking it some other way, supposing the spirit would return to and fro to the former abode of the deceased by the path along which the body had been borne to the place of interment.

The worshippers of Pele threw a part of the bones of their dead into the volcano, under the impression that the spirits of the deceased would then be admitted to the society of the volcanic deities, and that their influence would preserve the survivors from the ravages of volcanic fire. The fishermen sometimes wrapped their dead in red native cloth, and threw them into the sea, to be devoured by the sharks. Under the influence of a belief in the transmigration of souls, they supposed the spirit of the departed would animate the shark by which the body was devoured, and that the survivors would be spared by those voracious monsters, in the event of their being overtaken by any accident at sea. The bodies of criminals who had broken tabu, after having been slain to appease the anger of the god whose tabu, or prohibition, they had broken, were buried within the precincts of the heiau. The bones of human sacrifices, after the flesh had rotted, were piled up in different parts of the heiau in which they had been offered.

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