Traditional Hawaiian Funerary Rituals

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Map highlighting Hawai’i. Author: Canuckguy.


Hawaiian Island Chain.

Hawai’i is an island chain in Pacific Ocean, and the 50th State of the US. It was originally thought to have been colonized around 300-400 CE, but more recent radiocarbon dating shows evidence for occupation around 1000-1100 CE (Wilmshurst, et. al, 2011).

The traditional Hawaiian religion was based on mana. All things (people, places, animals, etc) had mana and all actions done by a person could affect one’s mana. By maintaining balance in action, one could possess mana. According to belief, there are two ways in which to increase one’s mana, through violence and through sexual means. The forces of nature were personified as the main gods of Ku (God of War), Kane (God of Light and Life), Kanaloa (God of Death), and Lono (God of peace) (Malo 1951: 56-57).

When a person died, there were many ways in which remains were treated. According to Cleghorn (1987: 42), there were ten different interment methods practiced by Hawaiians:

  1. Exposure – Individuals who had no family to take care of the remains.
  2. Cremation – Usually reserved as punishment.
  3. Sea/Freshwater Disposal – If the individual’s family guardian spirit was a sea animal.
  4. Volcanic Pit Disposal
  5. Cave Disposal for example
  6. Monument
  7. Sand and Earth Burial – one of the more common methods
  8. Cists
  9. Heiau – primarily sacrificial
  10. House – individuals could be placed beneath houses.

A large amount of both historical and archaeological information exists for the three interment methods: cave disposal (examples: Cave1,  Cave2), monument burial (examples: Kamehameha TombWyllie Tomb), and sand/earth burial (highlighted below). Caves are sheltered from natural weather conditions, and usually remain dry. Hence, bones are generally well preserved in cave sites. Cave burials were often done in secret, in order to protect the remains from being disturbed or looted (Cleghorn 1987: 43).

Sand or earth burial

As described in Malo and Emerson 1951.

Step 1:

Corpses were taboo (tabu). bodies were considered unclean and a period of time must elapse before burial. For higher status, this could be for 10 days or more, for common status it could be two or three days.

Hale Pili

Princess Keelikōlani’s hale pili (grass house), ca. 1883.

If someone died in a house, people not blood relatives must leave. Those remaining took care of the deceased and were considered defiled (haumia). These people were forbidden from entering another house, eat the food of anyone else, touch anyone else, or work. Mourners were allowed to come and visit.


Alaea salt is an unrefined Hawaiian sea salt. CC by Glane23



Step 2:

Bodies were cut open and the inner parts were removed. The body was filled with salt for preservation (i’a ha).




Hawaiian Kapa. Source: Cook-Foster Collection at Georg-August University in Göttingen, Germany.

Step 3:

For burial, a rope was tied to the leg joints and around the neck. The rope was tightened to bring the legs to the chest. Once the body was prepared, it was wrapped in kapa.





Volcano, Night, Glowing, Fire.


Step 4:

Ceremony took place at night so that the body could be buried by morning.





Punaluu Beach Park, Big Island, Hawai’i.


Step 5:

Those who took place in the burial washed themselves in the water and returned to the house where they were prayed for and purified (Kapu kai (meaning explained in ‘Ōlohe Lua Aīwaīwa article) by the kahuna pule heiau. After the ceremony, they were no longer considered defiled.




Before conducting the research for this project, I was familiar with one type of burial practiced by traditional Hawaiians, cave burial. I was surprised to see in reality, it was just a small piece of a complex religious experience. From my overview research, it appears that there is not a lot of research on traditional funerary practices, but work that has been done does include work by indigenous historians. I am intrigued and will continue to learn more, I invite you to do the same.

Page created by Ryan Lynn


Cleghorn, June Noelani Johnson. 1987. “HAWAIIAN BURIAL RECONSIDERED: AN ARCHAEOLOGICAL ANALYSIS.” Order No. 1331952, University of Hawai’i.

Fornander, Abraham, and Thomas G. Thrum. Fornander Collection of Hawaiian Antiquities and Folk-lore: The Hawaiian Account of the Formation of Their Islands and Origin of Their Race, with the Traditions of Their Migrations, Etc. Honolulu, H.I.: Bishop Museum Press, 1919.

Green, Laura C., and Martha Warren Beckwith. 1926. “Hawaiian Customs and Beliefs Relating to Sickness and Death”. American Anthropologist 28 (1). Wiley: 176–208.

Malo, D., and N. B. Emerson. Hawaiian Antiquities. 2nd ed. Honolulu: Bishop Museum, 1951.


Pearson, Richard J., Patrick Vinton Kirch, and Michael Pietrusewsky. “An early prehistoric site at Bellows Beach, Waimanalo, Oahu, Hawaiian Islands.” Archaeology & Physical Anthropology in Oceania (1971): 204-234.

Wilmshurst, Janet M., Terry L. Hunt, Carl P. Lipo, Atholl J. Anderson, and James O’Connell. 2011. “High-precision Radiocarbon Dating Shows Recent and Rapid Initial Human Colonization of East Polynesia”. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 108 (5). National Academy of Sciences: 1815–20.


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