Funeral Rites Of Ancient Times Part V

Tapa clothAs you have looked into the history of funeral rites in this series, you may have come to the understanding that the treatment of death by various peoples from all around the world can be linked to the basic feeling of grief over the loss of a loved one. Although there may be some differences in the details of rituals, customs and views of death and the afterlife, great care is typically given to the deceased out of respect and love and to ensure safe passage to the next existence beyond the physical world.


Although the influence of European missionaries has altered the ancient customs of Hawaii, the practices of old ways still exists in some places today. Many of the funeral rituals have been preserved in part, due to the strong belief that the spirits of the departed remain to watch over the living. This thread that connects the present to the past, life to the afterlife, can be a balm to ease the loss of loved ones and important authority figures.

The bones of the deceased were considered to be powerful, full of life energy and useful as protection against injury or harm to whoever possessed them, usually a relative. The skull, leg and sometimes the arm bones were believed to hold the most power, or manna.

Caves were commonly used as a place of entombment for men, women and children, however secret caves were reserved for the nobility, guarded by the family retainer. Sometimes, the body would be laid out flat, but more often, the knees were drawn up towards the chest. Then, a rope was tied around the legs, wrapped around the neck and pulled tight in order to create a more rounded shape. A beautiful layer of Tapa cloth was then used to cover the remains.

Sand dunes were often the burial place of warriors who had died in battle, although the skeletal remains of women and children have also been found in dunes, causing some debate and speculation among scholars. The sea was also another place of interment, used primarily for the bodies of fishermen who were eaten by sharks and then thought to inhabit their bodies to offer protection for living fishermen. Shark attacks were a common hazard for those whose lives were spent at sea and any assistance that could be granted from ancestors was sought out.

The Hale o Keawa Temple, otherwise known as The Place Of Refuge, was a depository for the bones of kings, who were believed to become deities after death. By 1829, the sets of 29 bones had been placed there, accounting for generations of rulers who overlooked their people and history.


From the Journal of William Ellis
, 1825

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.

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