Hawaii’s diverse culture is expressed through language, music, art, theater, dance, film, cuisine, and even funerals. Many Hawaii residents honor indigenous customs you may want to know before attending a Hawaiian funeral.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- How Native Hawaiians View Death and Dying
- Hawaiian Funeral and Ceremony Traditions
- Native Hawaiian Burial Customs
- Hawaiian Funeral Etiquette
You’re even likely to see Hawaiian beliefs meld with modern traditions. We’ll explore indigenous and modern death views and cover native culture, gift-giving, and prayers so you’ll know what to expect.
How Native Hawaiians View Death and Dying
About 63 percent of Hawaiians are Christian, according to Pew Research. Twenty-six percent of Hawaiians are not affiliated with any religious belief system. At a Christian funeral, the funeral is often at a church. Mourners bury the body in a casket and then share a meal.
Christian beliefs focus on one God and the afterlife — good deeds in this life reward the deceased with eternal happiness.
Native Hawaiians worshipped many gods. Where the soul goes after death depends on the god a person worships. For example, those who worshipped the sun god went in the direction of the sun. Hawaiians who worshipped the moon god went in the direction of the moon.
Yet, some souls don’t leave earth. These are wandering spirits, or laper, and the living fear them. Hawaiians can pray for the dead to stay away or return. Spirits can also help with revenge or protection. Some people worship them as unihipili, or household gods. These superstitions are still followed by many Hawaiians.
Hawaiian Funeral and Ceremony Traditions
Hawaiian funerals can be traditional or modern. Older customs, like burying bones, are observed today. Most Hawaiians agree that the bones, or iwi, continue to live on after death. The iwi is important because the spiritual essence of the deceased, or mana, remains in the bones.
Formerly, family members couldn’t handle bones after a partial cremation, but Hawaii has lifted restrictions on bone burials. Now, all Hawaiians can follow sacred traditions. Here’s how traditions are important and what you can expect when you attend a funeral.
COVID-19 tip: If you're planning a virtual Hawaiian funeral using a service like GatheringUs, you can still adapt many of these traditions, like hula dancing, prayers, and traditional music, to include your online guests. Brainstorm with your funeral director, event planner, or religious leader to help you figure out the logistics or any limitations.
Funeral service structure
First, let’s take a look at the native Hawaiian funeral. Since many Hawaiians follow traditional customs, you may see these practices at the funeral you attend. You may even want to incorporate them into a funeral for your loved one.
Family plays a crucial role in traditional funerals. Before any neighbors, friends, or acquaintances came to visit, they prepare the deceased for burial in this order:
- Wash the body. Salt water is the preferred way to wash the deceased. Ancient Hawaiians called it the “water of forgiveness.” It purifies the deceased to this day. The family uses salt as a preservative for the body to be kept in the home two to three days before burial.
- Prepare a special dress. The family prepares barkcloth — strips of tree bark — to wrap the body. Family members wrap the cloth around the deceased’s shoulders. Then they place the deceased on logs on the floor for viewing. Tying the barkcloth is an honor reserved for the son or daughter closest to the deceased.
- Family feast. After the preparations, there may be a feast. Funerals are occasions for extended family and friends to celebrate. Mourners attend a feast before and after the burial.
Now that the preparations are complete, it's time to carry the body out of the home. There are special steps to take to prepare the body like wrapping it in barkcloth or using a net. The method depends on the burial custom.
The hula dance
Hawaiians express grief at funerals through art mediums like song and dance. Family members can perform the hula anywhere the service is held. You may see it performed at a church, beach, or private home.
Hula is an ancient form of worship in the temple. Each dance movement is special and tells a story of war, friendship, or grief, among others. Traditionally, kahunas, or priests, danced the hula. It was reserved for special rituals in front of kings. Now, it’s performed by friends and family during funerals.
The hula isn’t limited to native Hawaiian funerals. You may see close family dance as a sign of respect at Catholic funerals, too. The Vatican (headquarters of the Catholic church) legalized hula and other art expressions for Mass.
It’s important to know the difference between recreational hula and a spiritual event. Mourners remain quiet and respectful throughout the latter. You may also see instruments like ukuleles and guitars used during the performance.
Prayers to the gods and ancestors are common in native Hawaiian cultures. Prayers are symbolic. Often, the ohana, or family, chant a special song so the spirit can leave the body.
Traditionally, ka-ku-ai, or worship of prayer and food, is sent to the spirit. Native Hawaiians believe this makes the spirit happy to serve the family in the future.
Location of service
In the past, the service was in a cave where the body was left. The men were pallbearers, and only they could attend the funeral. Pillows and mats made out of natural materials support the soul in its journey out of the body.
Today, most Hawaiians choose a traditional service in a church, gravesite, funeral, or private home. Friends and family gather for a traditional Catholic mass, but you’ll still notice native Hawaiian culture in the ceremony.
Flowers strung together into a lei wreath hold a longstanding significance for all Hawaiians. Wearing a lei is a sign of respect for the deceased. There are many types of lei flowers, from colorful to subtle.
They represent tokens of fortune, love, and passing. A common funeral choice made from green vines is the maile lei. Wearing a lei is a sign of respect and love for the deceased and his or her family.
Paddle out memorials
A paddle out memorial is popular with Hawaiian surfers. Native Hawaiian chants or prayers are often incorporated. Friends and family may bless the ocean water, then scatter the deceased's ashes into the ocean. It’s an unconventional but creative way for surfers to mourn.
Native Hawaiian Burial Customs
The majority of Hawaiians choose burial over cremations. As mentioned before, bones are very significant in Hawaiian culture and burning bones is taboo in Hawaiian culture.
Native Hawaiians went to great lengths to bury important people, like chiefs, in hidden caves. These bones were washed, wrapped, and buried. They are more important than any other body part in Hawaiian culture. In fact, there are thousands of burial sites in Hawaii with scattered bones.
Sea burials are another Hawaiian tradition. Mourners scatter ashes at sea while praying with native Hawaiians chants.
Hawaiian Funeral Etiquette
The mood and attire of a Hawaiian funeral might be different than what you’re used to. Many Hawaiians choose to incorporate traditional rituals.
The two common types of attire are formal and “aloha” attire. Aloha attire is casual — colorful island shirts, shorts, and even flip-flops. As always, it’s best to check in with the family ahead of time so you can respect its wishes.
If the family expects formal wear, you can take a look at our guide on what to wear to a funeral for ideas.
Bring gifts, sympathy cards, and flowers
Leis are a sign of respect at Hawaiian funerals — both native and modern. Bringing a lei to drape over the casket is a token of respect. If the family chooses an ocean burial, it’s appropriate to throw the lei into the ocean to mourn the deceased.
Monetary gifts also signify respect and help the family cover funeral costs.
Hawaiian Funerals: Old Customs, New Traditions
The sparkling oceans and lush Hawaiian islands inspire and attract people daily. The islands offer old customs ingrained in both the old and new generations. From chanting to blessing salt water, Hawaii has its unique death perspective.
- Green, Laura S., and Martha Warren Beckwith. Hawaiian Customs and Beliefs Relating to Sickness and Death. 1926.
- Weiss, Deric. “Origins of the Paddle Out Ceremony.” Surfer’s Medical Association. 31 Aug 2018. www.journal.surfersmedicalassociation.org/origins-of-the-paddle-out-ceremony/
- Pentaris, Panagiotis. Culture and Death: A Multicultural Perspective. University of Greenwich. May 2011.
- Krogstad, Jens. “Hawaii is home to the nation’s largest share of multiracial Americans.” Pew Research. 15 Jun 2015. www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/06/17/hawaii-is-home-to-the-nations-largest-share-of-multiracial-americans/