Moving burial locations is always controversial. Plans anywhere to move a cemetery for new construction usually spark protests. But a protest today highlights why moving burial locations is especially contentious in Hawaii.

The traditional Native Hawaiian custom had a slightly different view of what happens to the body and spirit after death. For Christians, at death the soul departs to an eternal resting place. At some future time, the body and soul will be reunited by and with a risen Christ. But until then, the body is inert. Moving bodies from Christian cemeteries requires respect and perhaps religious ceremonies but the move itself is not forbidden by any religious doctrine. In contrast, Native Hawaiian tradition holds that a person’s spirit resides in the bones of the body. At death, the bones are planted in the soil to rejoin the island that gave them birth. The spirit remains in the bones; it does not go to a heaven or hell. Moving the bones or even disturbing the ground that houses them disturbs the spirit and disrupts the spiritual communion.

The spirit is also in some sense conscious of its surroundings. Traditionally, burials were in pretty places near other family members who have died. That place has a special significance for living members of the family. However, those locations are not marked like cemeteries. Locations are kept secret. Only family members are entrusted with the knowledge of where their ancestors are buried. This causes problems with development because U.S. laws give cemeteries a higher level of respect than bones that are discovered “inadvertently.” Many in Hawaii believe that developers exploit that difference deliberately to get permission to build on or near burial locations.

Today’s protest is at the Kawaiahao Church, which has encountered traditional unmarked burial sites while building a new multipurpose building. The church has been given permission to proceed with the relocation of remains (called iwi). Protesters do not want iwi moved. The two groups disagree over the move and over which agency should have jurisdiction over it. But they seem to agree that the bones from unmarked graves should be treated differently than those buried in the traditional Christian manner.

This same issue is likely to be prominent in the Honolulu light rail project just now breaking ground. Local views are complex. As is demonstrated by the Kawaiahao Church, many Native Hawaiians converted to Christianity but wish to respect ancestors buried in the traditional manner. Either way, it adds an important consideration to virtually every construction project in Hawaii that doesn’t exist in other places.


  1. Wow! Great post…I think the laws should be on the side of traditional Hawaiian burials…if the Christian way has to do with respect for the dead, then you would think they would respect the traditional Hawaiian way…but I guess that respect is only afforded to those who do as they do and not to those who oppose their way of thinking.

  2. Wow. Great article Cindy! I really don't even know how to respond. How can a compromise be reached wherein all parties are satisfed? It's difficult to really take sides in the matter when you have landowners who want to defvelop their property and can't because of unmarked burial sites, and then you have descendants of those buried that need to have their wishes respected.  Yikes…it's going to be tough on whoever has to sort this out.

  3. I'm afraid I'm torn on this one in a sense of what is right versus well what is right.  On one hand the person who now owns the property should be able to do with it as pleased so long as the remains are moved with respect. I believe that they should allow the descendants to oversee the move so that they have no reason to think care wasn't involved.

  4. Wow, very complex issue especially since these burial sights are unmarked. I hope everyone involved remains understanding and respectful to the belief's of the native Hawaiians.

  5. This is an issue where people who are all trying to do the right thing often still differ. While it is especially sensitive for those of Hawaiian descent, they do not agree among themselves how to proceed in all cases. The State of Hawaii has a system of burial councils that is unique among the states that is one effort to deal with the cultural differences. I think the most important thing the rest of us can do is to be aware of how important the issue is and support those proceeding in good faith through difficult decisions.

  6. Aloha! Mahalo nui loa for shedding light on this very important issue. As a Native Hawaiian, and really as a person, reverence for the dead is something I feel is quite universal. How to handle this kind of situation is never easy.
    I did have a question though about your description of the Hawaiian belief of what happens after death. Iʻve never heard that the spirit remains with the bones. Growing up I always understood that the spirit left the body and traveled to a leina, or jumping point where it rejoined its' ʻaumakua, or ancestral guardians and entered , a sort of spirit world if you will. Perhaps youʻre referring to mana or life force. That remains with the bones, and if stolen, the mana of the deceased would go into the person who stole it, increasing their power.
    Anyhow, I'm always wanting to learn, and I know depending on area, some Hawaiian societies may have slightly different beliefs.
    I love what you're doing with this blog. Again, mahalo for discussing burial rights in Hawaii.

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