Sea Burial, a Hawaiian Tradition
Sea burial is a heart-felt and respectful tradition carried out in Hawaii. Sea burial is used both by native Hawaiians, and by non-Hawaiian visitors who have fallen in love with Hawaii and requested that their ashes be scattered there. Once in a while when you visit a public beach in Hawaii, or even at Honokeana Cove, you may witness a sea burial ceremony to honor a departed family member.
Most visitors to a public beach are intent on having fun, so when you see a serious-looking group gathering on the shore you know that something out of the ordinary is afoot. They will be wearing street clothes rather than swimwear, and some may be weeping. Surfboards are lined up at one side for use by participating family members. You will notice a guitarist, softly playing and singing a song in Hawaiian. Family members will take turns sharing their memories of the deceased.
When everyone has had a chance to speak, the older members of the family will gather by an outrigger canoe pulled up on the shore. The canoe is the vehicle of honor for the ashes of the deceased, as well as the surviving matriarch or patriarch. Anyone who is infirm or too young to paddle out alone may also ride in the canoe. Family members and friends will present leis, which are gently placed in the vessel.
When all is ready, several men launch the canoe, which is paddled by men riding at both ends. As shown in the photograph leading this article, the canoe then heads out to sea, accompanied by family members riding on surfboards. (All images may be clicked upon to enlarge them.)
When the group has arrived a few hundred feet from the shore, the ashes are consigned to the sea with a traditional prayer or chant. Leis and flower petals are scattered on the water to join the ashes drifting on the surface. The participants return to shore where they are greeted and hugged by the family and friends remaining there.
If you’d like to see more photos of the sea burial ceremony attended by Art in 2013, see his website article on Sea Burial.
A famous sea burial occurred in 1968 in Honolulu, in honor of Duke Kahanamoku. Duke was a five-time Olympic medalist in water sports between 1912 and 1932, and during most of his lifetime Duke was the world’s best-known Hawaiian. He is credited with popularizing the sport of surfing, which was previously known only in Hawaii.
Duke Kahanamoku died of a heart attack at age 77 and was honored with sea burial off Waikiki Beach in Honolulu. A description of his sea burial will give you an idea of the intense feeling and emotion that is still associated with Hawaiian sea burial today:
The beachboys sang their farewell song “Aloha Oe” and the shoreline of people began to weep. Duke’s ashes were paddled out to sea by an armada of outrigger canoes and surfers. Nadine Kahanamoku scattered his ashes into the sea. The mourners in the canoes, boats and on surfboards threw flowers and flower leis for Duke. Soon the ocean was a blanket of flowers and Reverend Akaka spoke amongst the tears, “Paoa was a man of aloha. God gave him to us as a gift from the sea, and now we give him back from whence he came.” A rainbow formed over the island, as the canoes made their way back to the beach.
Sea burial is one of the many customs that sustain and honor the traditions of the Hawaiian people. For more about Hawaiian cultural history, see this website’s Feature Stories on Hula and Slack Key Guitar.
Why not start your own Hawaiian tradition? A visit to Unit 114 Honokeana Cove could be a good beginning.