What Is a Memorial Paddle Out Ceremony in Hawaii?


Though our world is rich in cultural traditions — both related to life and death — some traditions have become rarer, or, it’s likely that you’ve never heard of them before. A great example of a unique memorial service tradition in Hawaii is the paddle out ceremony.

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It embodies many tenets of island and surf culture, including beliefs about water’s cleansing properties, as well as the idea of the afterlife.  

If you’re planning to attend a paddle-out ceremony, witnessed one on a recent trip, or are just curious to learn more about them, we’ll discuss what they entail, what they mean, when they’re used, how to organize one, and more.

Of course, the biggest takeaway you should hope to learn about funeral traditions, particularly Hawaiian funeral traditions, is how they pay respects and reverence to the dead. 

What Is a Paddle Out Ceremony?

At its essence, paddle out ceremonies serve as a way to save the surfer identity. Surfing has a long-standing history in Hawaii, dating far back into the ancient era of the islands. As you’ll read below, surfing has both remained true to its roots and evolved to some extent. 

The “surfer identity” in brief

Though surfing has become a popular past time — and an incredibly intense competitive sport, too — it once served a variety of unique and significant purposes to Hawaiians. Surfing in ancient Hawaii, and likely, to some extent today:

  • Kept powerful leaders in top form
  • Settled disputes between islanders
  • Allowed islanders to honor and ask for strength from their gods to “tame the ocean”
  • Led to the construction of a variety of surfboards from specific types of wood (a sacred activity)
  • Served as a rite of passage and a way to assert skill and prowess

Meaning of paddle out ceremonies

Paddle out ceremonies may be performed as either part of a death rite or a rite of passage. Depending on the intent, the ceremonies accomplish slightly different goals. 

As a death rite, paddle out ceremonies:

  • Promote the idea of an afterlife and the appearance of the ‘Aumakua (a family god or ancestor)
  • Remove polluting emotions and reduce grief 
  • Reproduce culture and intensify relevance of surf culture to the living

As a rite of passage, paddle out ceremonies:

  • Serve as a “Purification Ritual,” separating the sacred from the profane
  • Help surfers show their skill to successfully travel in a dangerous manner over open water and waves
  • Allow surfers and islanders to incorporate themselves into the sea, rejoining “the circle” 

What or who they might honor

Paddle out ceremonies will either honor or challenge the individual or individuals in question. As described above, paddle out ceremonies may occur as death rites or as rites of passage.

Paddle out ceremonies intend to deepen the connection between the person and their ancestors, gods, and the ocean itself. Below, we go into further detail about what actually happens during paddle out ceremonies, who’s invited, and how to plan them.

Much of the overarching goal of paddle out ceremonies comes down to the notion of “the circle,” which is portrayed in a few different ways in Hawaiian culture.

The circle can be seen as:

  • Leis during welcoming ceremonies and other celebrations
  • Rings of fire during ceremonies and celebrations, such as hula dances
  • The Symbol of Eternity during paddle out ceremonies, described further below

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What Happens During a Paddle Out Service?

What actually happens during a paddle out service will depend on the intent of the paddle out service. As we’ve discussed prior, paddle out services may occur as a death rite or they may occur as a rite of passage. Of course, there will be some similarities among all paddle out ceremonies. 

During a paddle out service as part of a death rite, guests all join together in the ocean on either shared or individual boards.

Guests form a circle, or, “The Circle,” which is known as the Symbol of Eternity. It is here when the ashes of a deceased person are brought out in some sort of vessel (even something as simple as a backpack) to the center of the circle.

Then, guests may also share songs, chants, or prayers unique to Hawaiian culture. Other words honoring the deceased person may be shared, either traditional or more modern. Here are some examples of funeral poems.

After the ashes are released, guests splash the water and throw flowers to represent the person becoming one with the ocean once more. This is also a means of celebrating this reunion between the person and the ocean.

Often, the deceased person’s board is also brought out alongside guests. As guests return to shore, they often place a flower or flowers on the board. The exact procedures may vary depending on who is being honored as well as whether or not they’re of Hawaiian descent. 

What Should Guests Bring or Wear?

Since paddle out ceremonies have a very specific intent and location, it’s pretty much understood that guests should arrive ready to get in the water. Depending on water temps and weather conditions, they should be prepared and comfortable. Wetsuits are the most sensible and common option.

However, for less-experienced swimmers, it may also be necessary to wear life vests or other protective gear. And, it may be necessary to appoint a person to remain on shore if some guests are not capable of coming out into the water. It can always take place in a very shallow section, too. 

Guests should also bring any flowers they wish to gift to the person being honored. It is also likely that leis will be worn. You may also be interested in what to wear to traditional funerals.  

How Do You Organize a Paddle Out Ceremony?

Organizing a paddle out ceremony won’t be much different than planning a traditional funeral or memorial service. It requires coordination as well as a more vigilant watch on weather conditions and some flexibility to that effect. 

Organizing a paddle out ceremony will likely come down to a few different factors, including what time of year it is, where you wish to have it, who you hope to invite, as well as who you hope to honor.  

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Think about the location

Make sure to check with local fish and wildlife and other environmental agencies in the area to ensure that you do not leave anything harmful in the water, such as flowers poisonous to fish or other creatures. 

On that note, checking in with these agencies will also ensure that water conditions are safe for you and your guests. The last thing you’d want is to plan a paddle out ceremony during a time of high algae or a jellyfish infestation.

If you plan to have your paddle out ceremony in a restricted or private area, you may also need to coordinate with the owners and to ask for their permission.

Consider guests and gear

You should also keep in mind how many people you’re inviting and how prepared everyone will be on their own, or, if they’ll need some help.

This is where it’d be prudent to organize with a local water sports shop or rental facility. You can call ahead to arrange for a variety of wetsuits and board sizes to be available on your day of choice. 

To that effect, you should also make it clear to guests what the schedule is and what you expect from them. Do you wish for guests to bring their own flowers to the service? Or, are you going to provide approved flowers? And, if guests bring additional sympathy gifts, what will be your protocol for dealing with them? 

Make paddle out ceremonies your own, respectfully

As we discussed above, paddle out ceremonies don’t have to be limited to ancient Hawaiian culture. However, it’s important to remember where this tradition originated, and to pay respects in that regard.

For example, if you’re celebrating the death anniversary of a water sports enthusiast, a paddle out ceremony may be the perfect way to honor him or her. 

This ceremony will be beautiful if you incorporate aspects such as forming a circle as well as distributing flowers accordingly.

However, unless the person honored was Hawaiian or you have a guest who’s Hawaiian performing part of the ceremony, it probably wouldn’t be wise to recite Hawaiian chants or prayers without cause.   

Paddle Out Ceremonies Create Unity and Peace

Like many types of funeral and memorial service traditions, paddle out ceremonies serve as a way to unify the honored person with both the group in attendance and entities beyond. 

In the case of Hawaiian culture, it is about a reunification with ancestors, gods, and the ocean. Of course, in rites of passage, too, it is about connecting the individual with his or her own strength. To learn more about funeral traditions of different cultures, as well as end-of-life planning resources, check out the rest of Cake. 


  1. Thomas, Charles R. and Hawkins, John. “Saving the Surfer Identity: The Paddle-Out Ceremony.” Brigham Young University BYUScholarsArchive. 2010. scholarsarchive.byu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1120&context=fhssconference_studentpub
  2. “The Importance of Surfing in Ancient Hawaii.” Surfing Waves.  surfing-waves.com/surfing-ancient-hawaii-duke-kahanamoku.htm

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