Here I am, an archaeologist working in the State of Hawaii, City and County of Honolulu – and I’ve barely shared a bit about what I do. My job is to monitor construction and infrastructure sites – primarily looking for burials and artifacts of significant cultural value. That being said, here is a bit about ancient Hawaiian death and burial practices.
When a person died in pre-contact Hawai’i – a kapu was imposed (kapu is taboo) during the time between death and burial. A couple of days for a regular person and ten days or more for a chief or chiefess. So the house and family of the dead became taboo for this period and were not to be touched or interacted with or the interactor would be defiled – in Hawaiian HAUMIA. A haumia person was also kapu until the defilement was lifted. Lots of loud weaping and tears and those most pained would show it by cutting their hair. Not a nice style or fancy do, but an ugly cutting that showed the grief and pain. A tooth might be knocked out with a stick. Ears might be cut off and tattoos might be placed. Personally, the tattoo and the hair sound reasonable to me, ears and teeth, that’s pretty extreme grief. There was also a sort of blistering branding with the ends of burning sticks. Ouch.
The dead were sometimes wrapped in kapa (tapa aka barkcloth). Sometimes the bodies were laid out extended and more often they were put in a fetal position. Some bodies were salted and if the cause of death was sorcery (which happened a lot more than you might think), then a kahuna kuni was brought to cut out the liver, chop it up, put it in dogs and birds, and then burn them to ashes. After this, the body was clean enough to be buried.
Hawaiians were also known to keep the long bones and skulls of their loved ones as momento-mori. The other bones would usually be burned with the flesh. Chief bones were especially valuable because they contained the mana (spiritual power) of the chiefs and so these bones were hidden by trusted retainers who in some cases were said to then kill themselves so that no one would find the bones or know the location.
All of the above explains why it’s not uncommon to find a tooth or a bone disarticulated from the rest of the body. Bone bundles were wrapped in kapa and sometimes tied with a braid of human hair – possibly from the head of the deceased. It is said that Captain Cook was treated this way and confusion over the custom led to the belief that he was eaten – in point of fact, he may have been eaten as it was not unknown to eat a tiny portion of a powerful enemy or ally in order to gain their mana. We will never know if Cook was eaten raw, cooked, or not at all.
In Hawaii, human bodies were sometimes burned, sometimes dessicated and distributed, sometimes buried in the sand, sometimes buriend in the earth, sometimes fetal – sometimes laid out, and occaisionally buried in stone cysts – piles of rocks to mark grave sites. Faces were usually pointed upwards. There are various cave burials scattered through the islands and also a number of royal mausaleums – mostly from the post contact period. Two known mausoleums were moved or destroyed after Queen Kaahumanu forced the abandonment of the old Hawaiian religion on her people in 1830.
The creepiest and coolest of the burials of old Hawai’i are the sennit caskets which are a sort of woven casket reminiiscent of the Egyptian sarcophagi. There are only a few of these that have ever been found. I would love to find one. And of course, when you have something like that – you are not far from making your kings and queens into immortal gods.
One of the most striking implements associated with Hawaiian death and burial are the tall feathered staffs known as Kahilis – it is believed they evolved from fly swishers but they came to signify important and powerful mana.
The photo above shows a large number of artifacts that were plundered from Hawaiian burial caves in 1905. A hundred years later they were repatriated and returned to the cave only to be taken from the cave again at a cost of several million dollars. They are currently back where they were before they were put back in the cave – at the Bishop Museum where no one can see them.