Hawaiian Sea Burial – Even for a Haole

(Last Updated On: May 17, 2023)

sea burial - Scot and others on surfboards

Note added May 17, 2023: This blog page is one of those most highly visited on the artchester.net website. Readers regularly contact me asking how they can arrange a similar service for a loved one. If this is a quest for you also, please read the comments and my replies at the bottom of this page, for suggestions that may be helpful. (The comments appear in reverse chronological order.)

Science Fact: Hawaiian sea burial is a heart-felt and respectful tradition not only for native Hawaiians, but sometimes for Mainland visitors as well.

The condo that Nola and I own is at Honokeana Cove in West Maui. Last month while on a Maui vacation I attended a sea burial on nearby Napili Bay Beach for Fetta Luebke, who was for many years the head of our condominium association’s housekeeping service. As a result, this post is a tribute to Fetta, whose memorial service and sea burial typifies the beauty and emotion of this custom.

1.  The family prepares the outrigger canoe.

sea burial - outrigger ready for family

2.  Fetta’s son and husband each wear flower lei.

sea burial - son Scot and husband

3.  Mourners gather as a Hawaiian guitarist sings softly.

sea burial - mourners and guitarist

4.  Fetta’s son Scot speaks of her joy of life as his sisters look on.

sea burial - Scot speaks

5.  Scot and some other relatives will paddle out on these surfboards.

sea burial - surfboards are ready

6.  Family members who don’t plan to ride surfboards board the outrigger canoe. Fetta’s husband sits in the center carrying a gourd holding her ashes.

sea burial - family starts out

7.  The burial party – outrigger canoe and surfboards – heads out to sea.

sea burial - Scot and others on surfboards

8.  The ashes meet the sea. Lei and flower petals spread over them.

sea burial - leis and flower petals on the ashes

9.  Back on shore, the family disembarks.

sea burial - family returns

10.  Those on surfboards stay a while longer paying their respects, then paddle back to the beach.

sea burial - more family returns

Science Speculation: At Honokeana Cove, we have many long-time owners and guests – some have been coming regularly since the condos were opened in 1969. Inevitably, some pass away, and some have asked for a Hawaiian sea burial of their ashes in our Cove, which is home to several dozen large Green Sea Turtles.

These guests are generally “haole,” that is, “foreigners” or non-Hawaiians. They come from somewhere outside the Hawaiian islands for their Maui vacation.  Most often, they live in the Western US and Canada, and of course are not ethnically Hawaiian.

There’s an honorable history of people adopting ethnic customs that are not part of their genetic heritage. For example, consider celebrations of St Patricks Day and Columbus Day by people who are not noticeably Irish or Italian any other days of the year. In addition, Christmas is a religious holiday that many non-Christians celebrate.

Finally, it seems appropriate to close with a description of the sea burial of Duke Kahanamoku. Duke was a five-time Olympic medalist in water sports between 1912 and 1932. Moreover, he popularized surfing, which was previously a sport known only in Hawaii. During most of his lifetime he was the world’s best-known Hawaiian.

Duke died of a heart attack at age 77 in 1968 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 surrounding 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.

Note: As a reader has correctly pointed out (see comments below), a lei can entangle sea life. A more earth-friendly approach is to scatter only flowers and flower petals. A modern lei can be made harmless by cutting the thread and pushing the flowers off into the water; retain the string for safe disposal on land.

Do you know someone who has opted for sea burial? How do you feel about sharing the customs of your own heritage with others?


Hawaiian Sea Burial – Even for a Haole — 13 Comments

  1. Today through our condo website https://maui114.net I received this comment from a reader whose name I omit to respect privacy:
    Subject: Burial at Sea. Message: Do you scatter ashes at sea if we ship the ashes to you?
    Do you video the scattering?
    I sent the following response:

    I’m sorry to tell you that no, that is not a service that we or Honokeana Cove Resort can provide. Sea burial in Hawaii requires a specific business license and reporting to the state, and our business license (short-term rentals) is incompatible with that kind of service.

    However, there are a number of firms who provide sea burial service, usually from Honolulu. Charter boat operators can bury cremains (and even un-cremated remains) beyond 3 miles from shore. I don’t know anything about this company, but I note that they offer such a service beginning at $325: https://www.seaservices.com/burial-at-sea-hawaii. A traditional sea burial involves scattering of ashes from a canoe, which usually occurs near the shore. Since that’s within 3 miles, there may be an exception to the three mile rule that Hawaiian residents can invoke.

    If you Google search sea burial service Hawaii you will see many links. There’s even a Yelp page that tries to rank the top 10 such services: https://www.yelp.com/search?find_desc=burial+at+sea&find_loc=Honolulu%2C+HI.

    When I did a search I was interested to learn that if the deceased person is a military veteran (from any branch of the Services) or a dependent of a veteran, the US Navy offers sea burial free of charge. This is the page I saw: https://www.seaservices.com/veterans.htm.

    I believe that if you read the reviews and contact some reliable-looking companies, you can find several who will provide a respectful ceremony with video documentation that will meet your needs.

    I am sorry that you need to deal with this sad occasion. Nola and I offer our sympathy and best wishes to you and yours.

    Mahalo –

    Art Chester

  2. Additional comment from the reader: Mahalo for requesting that people scatter only loose flowers but not place lei in the water. (You’re correct, there is no ‘s’ in the Hawaiian language. The leis = na lei; these leis = keia mau lei.) Mahalo for all your work! PS – I believe that in earlier times we all probably scattered lei in the ocean, such as when Duke was put to rest. I recall lei being scattered many years ago when my cousin, who was a prominent entertainer, had his ashes taken out by canoes for his services off Waikiki Beach. As time marches on we learn more and change our way of doing things, try to make the world a better place.
    Art’s comment on “leis”: My quote about Duke’s memorial comes from a University of Hawaii website, which uses the Anglicized (and incorrect) term “leis.” My understanding is that the written Hawaiian language is not traditional, but arose as the result of European contact with Hawaii. However, I can understand the desire of Hawaiians to keep the written form as close to the original as possible, and not distort it with Anglicisms like the added -s.
    Art’s comment on casting lei on the water: When lei were made of natural materials, and there were not nearly so many people, the lei might disintegrate before causing harm. However today, when lei might even be threaded using plastic, we should be (and are) much more cautious. Thank goodness that in some ways, we improve our behavior as time goes on.

  3. This comment comes from a reader: Scattering loose flowers is ok, scattering lei is not a good idea as the string could entangle sea life. Art’s comment: I completely agree! Even a traditional lei, made with all natural materials, may cause harm before it biodegrades. It is safest to scatter only flowers and flower petals. [You may note the reader’s correct use of “lei” as the plural of “lei.”]

  4. In August 2016 I was contacted by a man seeking information to plan a Hawaiian sea burial with which to honor a deceased son. Following the ceremony, he sent me the following comment and gave me permission to share it with you, the readers of this website:

    “Our son, who passed away earlier this year, spent many days on Maui, and many of them at Napili Bay. For the burial of his ashes we decided to paddle out as far as we dared from Napili Beach, dropping his ashes, wrapped in a puolo ti leaf wrap. We wanted no one to notice, if possible, and no public ceremony — as we wanted it private and quiet.

    Cora, at Kihei and Wailea Flowers, does make the ti leaf wraps, and I recommend her. You can also purchase leis (and get some loose flowers). You will need a biodegradable plastic bag for the ashes, and I purchased one at Perfect Memorials, online.

    I was going to hire a musician, but we opted not to. However I would recommend Wayne (see “Maui Guitar & Ukulele” on Yelp!).

    We rented kayaks at 505 Front St. in Lahaina. Mother, father, and brother paddled far out (we were blessed with a quiet sea and winds). We said our prayers and blessings, and as we dropped the ashes we sprinkled the flowers, each one a thought and prayer. It was a majestic, yet simple, ceremony. Completely in line with what our son would have wanted.

    God Bless!

    – Mike’s Dad”

  5. In May 2015, I received an e-mail that may be helpful to readers planning a sea burial service in Hawaii. Capt Ken Middleton (captken@hawaii.rr.com) sent the following note: “Aloha Art,
    Just ran across your posts on ash scattering traditions in Hawaii. Wanted to let you know we have helping families with their services at sea throughout the State of Hawaii for close to 30 years. We cater to visitors and Kamaaina who prefer a substantial vessel to a canoe or surfboard. Please visit our site at www.HawaiiAshScatterings.com for details, services and pricing. Mahalo.
    Capt Ken Middleton
    I reviewed his website, and also noted that his company has an “A+” rating from the Better Business Bureau. You may wish to consider this option if you prefer the privacy and services of a shipboard rather than beachside ceremony.

  6. Although comments are usually closed on older posts to prevent spam, I will continue to add comments as I receive relevant mail that may interest followers of this post.

    A reader whose name I omit for privacy reasons asked for advice on a Hawaiian prayer suitable for use at an ashes-scattering ceremony on Kauai. This was my reply to him:

    Hawaii is truly a magical place, and a wonderful site for recalling memories and making new memories.

    A Hawaiian funeral reaches out to natural beauty to console the sadness in our hearts. For that reason, a lei or flower petals will traditionally be floated on the water where the ashes are scattered. One or more family members say a few words, so that they are a part of the event and not merely witnesses. The Hawaiians traditionally also sing or chant a poem that includes images of nature; it might be considered a prayer, although the poems I have see do not explicitly address God as Christian prayers do. The kinds of poems that the Hawaiians use might work for your purpose.

    The most famous of these wistful farewell poems is contained as the words to “Aloha ‘Oe” (“Farewell to Thee”), composed by Queen Lill’uokalani: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aloha_ʻOe. It’s not necessary to sing it, the poem itself is quite beautiful. I have copied the chorus below for your convenience.

    I have found one other good source in case you want something more personal, where you could adapt the Hawaiian tradition to fit your father as an individual. An Australian journal, Humanities Research, devoted one of its 2013 issues to grief and laments, and in it the appropriate essay is titled “Chanting Grief, Dancing Memories: Objectifying Hawaiian laments” by Adrienne L. Kaeppler. Her article is at http://press-files.anu.edu.au/downloads/press/p245301/pdf/ch06.pdf
    (link updated 6/16/2016) and gives examples of traditional Hawaiian funeral poems along with their English translations. She discusses how the poems were used not only to commemorate, but as an occasion for public grief. A link on the webpage provides a free download of the entire journal issue in EPUB format, which can be read by book-reader software. The Hawaiian article is the sixth of twelve articles; if you’re trying to skip to it, it begins 46.92% through the issue.

    I hope that one of these approaches will be right for you and your family, and that you will have a good remembrance event.

    Aloha and best wishes –

    Chorus to “Aloha ‘Oe”:

    Farewell to thee, farewell to thee
    The charming one who dwells in the shaded bowers
    One fond embrace,
    ‘Ere I depart
    Until we meet again

    Sweet memories come back to me
    Bringing fresh remembrances
    Of the past
    Dearest one, yes, you are mine own
    From you, true love shall never depart

  7. For those interested in knowing more about Hawaiian funeral customs: Jamaica Michaels, who moved to Maui, writes a blog about what it’s “really” like to live in Maui: http://mauidailyescape.com/author/jamaicawtr/. Her most recent post is “Last Ride” (http://mauidailyescape.com/2014/03/07/last-ride/#comments) and describes a land-based funeral service in Upcountry Maui. It represents a different approach to a Hawaiian-type memorial — more like a wake, yet also respectful in its own way.

  8. My wife of 35+years passed away January 6, 2014. Her final wish is to have her ashes scattered in Hawaii. I was struck deeply by the pictorial ceremony of your friend. I am a man with very modest means but determine to honor my wife’s wish. How much this ceremony cost? Any answer will be greatly appreciated. Aloha and Mahalo.

    • Mr Nemil, I am very sorry to learn of your wife’s passing. Ashes may be scattered on land or on sea, in either case with an appropriate ceremony. The sea burial generally occurs as I described it — some quiet music, some words of memorial by a family member, and transporting the ashes out to sea, usually on a surfboard, or in this case on an outrigger canoe. A land service might occur at sunset, with an officiant who may sing, say a prayer and blow a conch shell. I don’t know how much the ceremony cost that I described. I believe the guitarist and the outrigger canoe folks were friends of the deceased person’s son, who lives in Maui, so it’s possible that no payment was made.

      My best advice to you would be to seek help through whatever lodging you will use when you visit Hawaii. For example, if you plan to stay at a hotel, the hotel concierge could advise you who might arrange an affordable and respectful ceremony. If you rent a condominium, the rental management company might assist you in the same way. Otherwise, I would try to contact someone at the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau — their phone number is (808) 923-1811 and their e-mail is info@hvcb.org. Another possibility would be to contact someone at the University of Hawaii — for example, their Honolulu Community College branch has a department of Hawaiian Studies (http://www2.honolulu.hawaii.edu/?q=node/591), studying the traditional culture and values of Hawaii. Searching commercial services would be a last resort. It seems to me that whoever you can establish a personal connection with who lives in Hawaii will open their heart to you and give you whatever assistance they can. I’m sorry that I don’t have more immediately useful information for you, but I live in Michigan and am only a visitor to the Islands myself.

      My very best wishes to you and to the memory of your wife –


  9. Hello Art,
    Can you recommend anyone who would provide sea burial services for my husband and I ? We lost our son during our visit to Maui this summer and want to honor him with a traditional sea burial.

    Thank you.

    • Hello Mandy,
      I’m terribly sorry to hear of the loss of your son. Hawaiian sea burial is a very respectful custom and it’s a beautiful way to honor someone, especially someone who has a personal connection to the Hawaiian islands.
      Unfortunately, as a Mainland resident who spends only a couple of months a year on Maui, I don’t know the specific folks who can help you. However, I will send you a personal e-mail with contact information for the local managers for our West Maui condominium. They are long-time Hawaii residents and either know or can find out some local people who could arrange such a service for you.
      Here’s another thought: because the ocean is a community resource, sea burial by its nature is a shared activity, as well as a private one. Thus besides being there yourself, you would want to share the occasion with others. I don’t know where you stay when you visit Maui, but if you rent at a condominium or a hotel, the management there can very likely assist you with arrangements. If you have your own home or condo, you will at least want to reach out to your neighbors. So that path may lead you to a suitable provider of this very personal remembrance.
      I send you the warmest thoughts and condolences as you look to honor your son.
      – Art

  10. Hello Art/Urno,

    As Hawaii owners ourselves and with relatives also living there, we share your appreciation of Island culture and traditions. What a beautiful, respectful, and reverent sharing of a touchingly personal and spiritual experience. Well done. Thank you for sharing this with us all.

    Steve & Sally Wharton | Seattle