Hawaiians positioned the deceased in two known burial positions - flexed or extended. Some bodies were flexed and sat in an upright position, which had religious significance. Samuel Kamakau writes about the cardinal points in accordance with the rising of the sun in the east and itʻs traveling to the west. This helped me to understand the direction of how a deceased person was buried was important to their spiritual journey. It was believed that the corpse took both material and spiritual matters beyond the grave and eternity of Pō, or into the west, taken away forever into the sunset. Some Hawaiians believed the body must be facing the west, others believed that it must face the ocean or mountain. The best rule was to follow the wishes of the deceased.
When the body was laid in an extended position on the ground, it was positioned as if a person was sleeping. The head would face east, and the feet, the west. It was wrong to have the head facing the west, for the spirit would return to haunt the people. The east side of the island was believed to be a new life or new beginning with the rising sun, and the west side of each island is where the sunset occurs; it symbolizes the end of the day (death), which was the most desirable location of the deceased. Another directional concept that may have significance is the left and right side: the right-side positioning means male or masculine, and left-side is female or feminine.
Hawaiians have different burial methods. Therefore, ancestral bones are found almost everywhere in Hawai‘i. Archeologists have discovered some of the oldest iwi of the first people to come to the Hawaiian islands. Some remains have been found that date to 850 A.D. In the Hawaiian belief, the symbiotic relationship between the dead and the living was closely connected with the physical remains of the departed, and manifested itself especially in proper treatment and disposal of the iwi of a deceased ancestor.
A corpse was a very Kapu (tabu) thing in Hawai’i nei. Iwi is the bone structure of anything; for humans, it's your skeletal remains; and for shellfish, the iwi is the shell. Iwi, in the Hawaiian belief, hold mana and are believed to be the strongest, immortal, or permanent thing of a person. The rest of the body has flesh, it has feelings, it has all of that, your iwi is your foundation, it's the basis on which a person exists. Traditional Hawaiians continue to have different burial methods, therefore ancestral bones are found almost everywhere in Hawai‘i.
For Hawaiians, the death of a loved one is always a profound, spiritual event. Native Hawaiian burial traditions are never the same. The ceremony depends on the family’s practices, status, local surroundings, and the circumstances of the death. The ancient people of Hawai‘i believed when a person died, their spirit remained near their iwi (bones). The spirit might leave and enter Pō (darkness) to join the spirit guardian, or the spirit may inhabit the iwi and later depart to Haumea an earth-mother goddess equated with Papa, Laʻilaʻi, and Kāmehaʻikana, the 'great source of female fertility’ who bore children in successive generations.
There were several burial methods Hawaiians practiced throughout the Hawaiian Islands. If the ground could be dug, a pit was made to place the body inside for burial. If the ground consisted of dense rock, the burial was made above ground, with stones stacked over the body. Lava tubes, caves, volcanic pits, or even sand dunes near the ocean, were also utilized for burials. Most prehistoric Hawaiian burials were unmarked to keep their location secret from being disturbed or abused. The depth of Hawaiian graves also varies with the terrain of the land. Sometimes burials were practiced to be in shallow graves, only a few inches from the surface, and other graves were dug several feet deep. The iwi was placed in the ground to eventually become part of Haumea (earth). Therefore, the mana of the deceased enters the land, making the entire area sacred.
When a person died, it was an important and deeply spiritual occasion that had a cultural process or a series of processes. Strict protocol and rituals were held by the kahuna to ensure that the departed spirit would successfully journey into the afterlife. Reunion with ancestors in the afterlife was considered comforting for the deceased, as well as the surviving members of the society. The bones of the dead were greatly guarded, respected, and treasured by the deceased family members or followers.
Keeping the bones in their houses or stored in temples was an everlasting reminder to remember their loved ones. Oftentimes; however, instead of the bones, the palms of the hands would be removed, dried in the sun, and kept close by. Teeth, fingernails, or the hair of the deceased would also be saved as kia ho‘omana‘o (keepsakes) as a memory to those still living. In extreme cases, if someone missed their deceased loved one, the body was secretly exhumed and sewn into a pillow-like structure. These pillows were made so that the surviving spouse or family members could continue to sleep with their loved one near them.
When a person died, the Hawaiian mourning practices were based on the status of the deceased. The higher the rank, the more intense the mānewanewa (self-inflict physical mutilation) and uwē (wailing). For commoners, death wailing could go for several days or weeks. Some high ruling chiefs were more intense, and wailing and chanting went on for several years. This expression of sadness could make a mourner pupule (crazy) due to the outbursts and extreme behaviors that were displayed during the grieving process. Women would beat their chests, scratch their faces, and men would gouge their eyes, take out their teeth and mutilate their bodies.
This level of extremity was taken because the mourners did not want to look the same due to the loss of their loved one. This idea of na‘au‘auā (deep grief) was displayed in various ways. Some Hawaiians would tattoo their face, or place a line or spot on their tongue to express their pain. Another expression of sorrow was to use tree bark and form it into a tube, and then light it at one end and apply the tip to the skin of the face or breast. A blister was formed which developed into a scar. It was important for ‘ohana (families) of the deceased to be able to express the ‘eha ‘eha or deep pain associated with the loss. By releasing and expressing the ‘eha ‘eha, the ‘ohana (family) member is more likely to cope with loss in a healthier way, and the “kau” or placement of the burden of sorrow will be lifted in time.
A ceremony was held where saltwater was used to wash the body, and a piece of salt was sometimes placed in the navel to purify the deceased. This ceremony was called wai kala (forgiveness). The citizens who aided in preparing the body for burial were considered defiled. These people were often shunned by their peers and were forbidden to enter another person’s home, eat food prepared by others, touch anyone, or work during the three to ten days of their defilement.
The most common method of arranging a corpse for burial was to use the aha kapu (red cordage), typically made from coconut husk. The aha kapu was used to tie the knees together and was then pulled around the neck until the knees touched the chest. After being tied, the rounded body was tightly wrapped in a lauhala mat (woven mat) or kapa cloth (cloth), and a hole was dug to kanu the body or to plant it. This was done at night, never during the day. The rounded body was transported by putting it into a net made of olona (plant fiber). The net was drawn together and slung over a pole or poles for carrying to the site; using a manele (stretcher) was another method of carrying; generally involving two or four bearers. The word kanu refers to earth burials or covering the body with soil. Similar to a tree, the body was planted in a fetal position into the earth to be reborn.
A family member would name the Kahu to secretly hide the body or bones. It was important to hide the body to deter jealous rivals who might desecrate the site or use the spiritual power of the remains for their personal gain. Hawaiians would cover their trails when leaving a new hidden burial site. Dirt was hand-carried and placed in kapa (cloth) or large wooden bowls. They would scatter dirt over their footprints to cover their path or trail.
Sometimes a fake funeral procession was held to lead enemies astray, while the real body was hidden elsewhere, in secret, to an undisclosed area or cave. Only men acted as a kahu to keep the secret of the ali‘i (chief) burial. The person responsible for keeping the burial location secret was known as huna lele. The position of huna lele was usually hereditary within the family.