Thursday, November 26, 2015         


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Burial laws should be grounded in history and present-day reality

By Roy L. Benham


Hawaii would be well served if a review of laws governing burial discoveries were undertaken, as the Star-Advertiser has suggested ("Laws protecting iwi need review," Star-Advertiser, Our View, Oct. 5). The review should be mindful of the impact of burial laws on the improvements necessary for a growing community, while being mindful of history and tradition.

In pre-contact Hawaii, the iwi (bones) of family members were not as important as the individual's spirit (uhane). Upon death, the family gathered around the body of the departed to chant and to ensure the uhane would go to the gathering place on an island where the spirit would meet with the Akua who would escort him or her to po — the Hawaiian heaven.

After the family mourning period was complete, one family member was assigned the task of burying what was left of the body, primarily the iwi.

Because the ancient Hawaiians believed that if someone living wished to cause something bad to happen to the family of the deceased that individual could find the bones and use them to cause bad events to befall the family. Therefore, one member of the family was chosen to dispose of the bones, and no one else would know where the bones were buried.

Obviously, the easiest place to bury bones was in the sand. Sandy areas were, and are, found on all the habitable islands and this is where most of the bones were buried.

For the high chiefs, the process was slightly different. To ensure no one would know where a high chief's bones were buried, the chief designated someone to hide his bones. Most were hidden in unknown caves. That person was then obligated to kill himself to assure no one would find the bones of the chief. It was an honor to be chosen to hide the chief's bones and that person was assured a journey to po.

To this day, no one knows where the bones of Kamehameha I were hidden. However, the important thing was that his spirit went to po. The belief that bones needed to be hidden is the reason there were no pre-contact native Hawaiian cemeteries. If by chance bones were discovered, they were carefully reburied near where they were found.

The idea among some Hawaiians today, that we should not disturb any bones discovered in the course of approved construction activities, is unrealistic. Considering the amount of construction necessary on these islands in the 21st century, we will revisit the burial laws. Already, there are many bones that rest under our buildings and highways. But the spirit uhane is free and can never be bothered.

To delay progress for fear of disturbing ancestral bones (iwi kupuna) is not the consensus of all Hawaiians. We should follow the example of our ancestors when burials are discovered. It should be permissible to remove bones encountered during construction activities, as long as the discovered bones are carefully reburied as near to the original location as possible.

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