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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
DIFFERENT BURIAL METHODS
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.
BURIALS ARE SECRET AND WITHOUT CEREMONY
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.
BONES THROWN TO PELE AND THE SHARKS
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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