Hawaiian Funeral Traditions, Customs & Beliefs
Updated: Jun 10
Hawaii has a diverse culture that is expressed in many facets of its society—language, cuisine, art, film, music, dance, and such. This richness in culture extends even to its funerals. If you’re attending a local funeral in Hawaii, it is a good idea to know what to expect when it comes to Hawaiian funeral traditions, customs, and beliefs.
In this article, we’ll talk about the difference between ancient Native Hawaiian beliefs and modern traditions and how these indigenous beliefs have melded with modern practices. We’ll talk about culture, etiquette, prayers, and gifts so you’ll know what to expect and you can prepare yourself accordingly in case you’ve been invited to a Hawaiian funeral service.
Death According to Native Hawaiian Culture
Today, more than half of Hawaiians, around 63 percent, are Christians, while an estimated 26 percent do not belong to any specific religion. Christians believe in one God and the existence of an afterlife, and they also believe that a person’s good deeds on Earth are rewarded after death with eternal life.
In comparison, Native Hawaiians believe in and worship an array of gods, and where a person’s soul goes after death depends on the specific god they worshiped while alive. For instance, if they believed in the sun god, they would go in the direction of the sun, and so on. However, not all souls get to depart this earth. Some end up as wandering souls, also called laper, which the living fear. Some spirits also become unihipili, or household gods, providing protection to the members of a household. Even at present, a lot of Hawaiians still believe in such.
Hawaiian Funeral Traditions
Funerals in Hawaii can be either traditional or modern, or even both. Some ancient customs, such as the burial of bones, are still practiced until now. Native Hawaiians believe that a person’s iwi, which is a person’s spiritual essence that remains in the bones, lives on even after death.
In the past, Hawaiians were not allowed to handle their loved one’s remains after a partial cremation, but that restriction has since been lifted recently. Now, all Hawaiians are at liberty to follow their ancestors’ burial traditions.
Funeral Service Structure
When it comes to traditional Hawaiian funerals, the family plays a crucial role in preparing the body for the service. Before friends, neighbors, coworkers, and acquaintances come to visit, there are several steps they must undertake to prepare for the burial. The body is often washed with salt water, which allows for the body to be kept in the home for two to three days as the salt acts as a preservative. A special dress made out of strips of tree bark is also brought out in which to encase the body. After all these preparations, the family and friends of the deceased come together for a feast.
Unlike Christian funeral services which are more solemn and somber, traditional Hawaiian funerals are more about celebrating the life of the loved one who passed away. Grief is often expressed at these services through singing and dancing. The hula is one such dance that is traditionally performed at funerals and is usually performed by the family members of the deceased. With all this in mind, it’s important that you learn to tell the difference between a hula for a spiritual event such as a funeral service and a recreational hula that is performed for entertainment.
In Native Hawaiian culture, praying to one’s gods and ancestors is a common practice. The prayers themselves are often symbolic and are usually performed or chanted in the form of a song so as to encourage the spirit of the deceased to depart from the body. Aside from prayers, food is also sent to the spirit; people do this in the belief that it will make the spirits of their loved ones happy.
With regard to location, many Hawaiians choose to organize a traditional funeral service in a church or private home. A traditional religious mass can be celebrated, although there are still signs of Native Hawaiian culture embedded in the ceremony.
When it comes to funeral flowers, lei wreaths are often worn to show respect for the person who has passed away as well as their family. Funeral lei wreaths are often made from green vines and can be either subtle or colorful.
In Hawaiian culture, bones are seen as a significant part of the body because it contains a person’s mana, or their spiritual essence. Native Hawaiians would often bury their dead in secret caves, and the bones were then washed carefully, wrapped, and then buried. Another option is to scatter the ashes at sea while chanting.
If you are used to attending solemn funeral ceremonies, a Hawaiian funeral might surprise you a bit, as the attire and general mood is entirely different. When it comes to funeral etiquette, Hawaiians like to mix a little bit of the old with the new.
For attire, there are two common types that are worn—formal and aloha. The latter is a more casual style that consists of colorful Hawaiian shirts, and floral dress. When attending a funeral, you might want to check in with the family first so as to know what type of service it will be; thus, you can prepare your attire accordingly.
You are also expected to bring flowers, gifts, and sympathy cards. Draping a lei wreath over the deceased’s casket is seen as a sign of respect. In the event of an ocean burial, it’s proper practice to throw the lei into the ocean along with the scattered ashes. Monetary gifts to help cover funeral expenses are also greatly appreciated.
In the Hawaiian islands, you can easily find ancient Native Hawaiian funeral traditions mixed in with modern beliefs and ingrained in the hearts and souls of the people living there. Whether you agree with such traditions or not, it cannot be denied that Hawaii indeed has a unique perspective when it comes to typically grim subjects like death and funerals.