top of page

Ruling the Hawaiians was an honor that most took very seriously, and an obligation that bound them by blood. The ali’i were those who had maintained pure and blood lines, genealogies that could be mapped directly back to the gods.


But the blood of great ancestors and chiefs was not enough to secure them chiefly status indefinitely. The ali’i had to earn and keep the respect of those they governed. The chief held many responsibilities, and those who did not carry out their duties could face shame, embarrassment and loss of birthright. 

A ceremony was held where salt water 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, meaning 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 3 to 10 days of their defilement.

Oftentimes, chiefs were often isolated and trained from birth in preparation to rule. Hawaiian chiefs were considered the all-important "middle-men" between the akua, or Gods, and the people. They were adorned with royal colors: red and yellow. These colors were rare to acquire by birds to decorate themselves. They wore red and yellow feather cloaks as symbols of their rank. Helmets and headdresses were also used by men and women to identify their royal status. Jewelry was crafted from animal bone and used by ali’i, and whale bone and human remains were prized possessions of the royal family.      

It was the custom that if a chief or king died, his successor was temporarily relocated to another district, as the corpse was thought to pollute the area. The kapu (taboo) usually lasted ten or more days for a chief and one or two days for a common person. 

Burial preparation and the ceremony were meant to be lengthy and committed processes. The ritual was followed through after death to ensure that the corpse was truly dead and not sleeping. Strict rules were in place in regards to who handled and stayed with the corpse. Only the Kahuna and men would handle the remains of the ali’i.

A chief's body was prepared in the same manner that Hawaiians would kālua (cook) a pig: the body was placed into an imu (underground oven) and was wrapped in kapa lau (garment of leaves), banana, mulberry, and taro leaves. After that, a shallow pit was dug about a foot deep and a fire burned for ten days. This was so that the flesh could be easily removed from the bones. This process was called pūholoholo.

The bones were oftentimes carefully wrapped in the kapa with fragrant flowers and herbs. Kapa was used by Hawaiians to make clothing, sleep coverings, and wrapping precious objects. Women made the kapa cloth by pounding the bark of the mulberry tree into thin sheets. Kapa was then pigmented in a variety of colors, using natural dyes from plants and clay.


Lastly, the kapa was saturated in kukui nut oil to make it waterproof. Often, the designs and prints on the kapa were identified as a person. The prints were carved stamps on bamboo. These unique patterns could show a person’s rank or status within the village. Hawaiians used this material to carefully wrap the bones together to protect them, before placing them into a woven basket to be ready for burial.

The remaining pela or decayed flesh and intestines removed from a corpse; of the king that was left in the imu, would turn into lehu (ashes). The lehu were then gathered by the kahuna of the mua (house of men) to be taken to a sacred area at night. Lastly, the lehu of the king was thrown into the ocean, believed to be returned to the God Kāne. The scattering of pela refers to the process of dedicating an individual's remains to the elements. Hawaiians offered the person’s ashes to the sea or freshwater, volcanic pit, sand, cave, and heiau (temple) house or burial.


The chief’s iwi were placed inside a Heiau and the kahuna led ceremonies to transform the ali‘i into an ‘aumakua, or spiritual guardian of the family. The kahuna would deify a person into a guardian spirit by arranging bones upright in the shape of a seated man within the Heiau.


After this ritual ended, the king’s successor would return to the district because the area would be purified, and the new king could begin his reign.

A new Heiau, called a hale poki, was erected and served as the repository for the remains. The dead chief was then enshrined in the heiau and worshiped. Because the high chief was considered to be the incarnation of an akua maoli (God) at his death, his bones were deified and usually carefully concealed in a remote burial cave. The bones of the deceased were bundled and wrapped in kapa. A woven or netted basket, called a kā‘ai or ‘ie‘ie, was an iwi container for the deceased.


For important chiefs, the kā‘ai which means to wrap up were woven into the shape of a human body from coconut husk fibers, lauhala, human hair, intestines, and ‘ie‘ie vine. The bones were arranged in order, depending on which side of the body they originated, and the skull was placed on top of the bones. The kā‘ai (woven basket) was also positioned sitting upright with his legs and knees to his chest and arms wrapped around it. Skilled artisans would sometimes create eyes, ears, and a mouth to represent the human being.

bottom of page