Lawmakers to Bolster Native Hawaiian Burial Traditions With Modern Technology

Feb 24, 2021

Hawaiʻi lawmakers are considering legislation to help the state’s funeral services industry accommodate traditional Hawaiian burial practices by using a technology known as water cremation. Supporters say this is a cleaner alternative to burial or traditional cremation. But industry representatives say it could come at a higher cost to consumers.

Traditional Hawaiian burial practices involve the preservation and protection of iwi or bones with the belief that iwi carry the mana or spiritual essence of a person. Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu, head of the Oʻahu Island Burial Council, explains.

WONG-KALU: I ta wā ma mua, hoʻotomo ʻia ke tino tūpāpaʻu i loto o ta imu. Hoʻomaʻemaʻe ʻia nō a pau. Wehe ʻia tēlā alualu, hemo a pau loa, loaʻa pono mai ka iwi, a uhi ʻia a paʻa i loko o te tapa. Hiti nō ta poʻe mālama maikaʻi a hūnā pono.

Wong-Kalu says back in the day, the corpse would be placed in an imu or underground oven to cleanly remove the flesh from the bones. The bones were then wrapped in kapa and could be properly hidden to preserve the mana of the deceased.

State Senator Jarett Keohokalole says its no longer feasible for Hawaiian families to engage in these traditional practices.

"You know in modern Hawaiʻi, ʻohana are not allowed to make an imu next to the beach to practice their burial pratices in the old style," says Keohokalole, "And so this just allows modern technology to be utilized so that ʻohana who want to be burried in the dry bone style can do so."

Keohokalole introduced two measures that would allow the use of water cremation technology also known as alkaline hydrolysis. Kawehi Correa, President of Aloha Mortuary, explains.

"It’s basically a modern technology of an imu," says Correa, "So your body sits in a chamber of pressurized water and what it does is it gently starts to decompose its flesh. At the end of the cycle, the bones well at least 90 percent of them are left pristinely white."

This would allow Hawaiian families to inter the iwi as they see fit. In comparison to traditional cremation and burial practices, water cremation offers a more than 75 percent reduction in carbon footprint and uses an eighth of the amount of energy of flame-based cremation.

But critics of the bills say the measures fail to address issues like permitting and licensing for operating an alkaline hydrolysis facility. Jay Morford, President of the Hawaiʻi Funeral and Cemetery Associations, says about two dozen mortuaries and funeral homes oppose the bills.

"We're not opposed to people having a choice of what disposition they choose but I believe that there should be serious regulations looked at in what departments are going to oversee what before this bill moves forward," says Morford.

He also argues alkaline hydrolysis equipment is more expensive than traditional cremation machinery, costing as much as $400,000 a unit – a cost that could be passed on to consumers.