Mourning Rituals

The Hawaiian ritual of mourning served to incorporate the past into the present and the present into the past; creating anew, over and over again, a cosmology without end. The twenty-six year old missionary Lucy Thurston, who arrived in the Islands five months after Kamehameha’s death in 1821, was terrified by warnings that she would be robbed, bewitched, and possibly even eaten. She described in her journal what she had been told of the traditional chaos that followed the death of King Kamehameha I.

Niuli'i coastline
Niuli’i coastline in North Kohala

They went upon the idea that their grief was so great, that they knew not what they did. They were let thoroughly loose, without law or restraint, and so gave themselves up to every evil, that they acted more like devils incarnate, than like human beings . . . Their grass-thatched cottages were left empty; their last vestige of clothing thrown aside; and such scenes of wholesale and frantic excesses exhibited in the open face of day, as would make darkness pale. A tornado swept over the nation, making it drunk with abominations . . . It was among their more decent and innocent extravagances that they burned their faces with fire, in large, permanent, semi-circular figures, and with stones knocked out their front teeth.

After his death, Kamehameha’s body, as befitted that of a great king, was wrapped in leaves of banana, mulberry, and kalo, laid in a shallow trench a foot deep, and covered with soil. A fire was lighted the length of the grave and kept burning for ten days, during which time chants and prayers were recited without pause. The grave was then opened and the bones cleaned. The flesh, internal organs, and other parts of the body were taken out to sea after dark and discarded, during which time no commoner was allowed to leave his house or he would be killed. The priests then arranged his bones in the shape of his body and wrapped them in white kapa, which marked the end of the period of defilement. The hiding place of Kamehameha’s bones, said to be along the Kona coast or in Kohala, has never been found.

Nancy Johnson at eighteen at Waipiʻo after a swim in a cold mountain pool. She is wearing a blue chambray shirt, called a Kauaʻi shirt, once favored by workers on the plantations, which we wore on all adventures, particularly fluming and ti-leaf sliding.
Nancy at eighteen at Waipiʻo, after a swim in a cold mountain pool. She is wearing a blue chambray shirt, called a Kauaʻi shirt, once favored by workers on the plantations, which we wore on all adventures, particularly fluming and ti leaf-sliding.

My childhood friend, Nancy Johnson, who died six years ago, told me that she had come upon a cave on the coast at the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel while diving for golf balls near Hole Three of the hotel’s notoriously difficult course. The following is an excerpt from my book, I Myself Have Seen It, published in 2003:

She saw at sea level the entrance to a cave, visible only at low tide. When she swam into the cave, it was as dark as night…but for a scant moment of sunlight each time the ocean receded, leaving the entrance uncovered. The water was deep and the cave rose to a height of ten feet. In one of the intervals of light, she saw, to her astonishment, a long wooden canoe wedged onto a natural shelf near the dome of the cave. What appeared to be wooden images wrapped in kapa were inside the canoe, as well as long spears. As the water was rising with the turn of the tide, there was not enough time to climb onto the ledge to look inside the canoe. A week later, after swearing me to secrecy, we swam along the coast at low tide, looking for the entrance to the cave, but we could not find it…The Hawaiians say, ʻThe morning star alone knows where Kamehameha’s bones are guarded.’

I received quite a few letters after the book was published from people who had the same story to tell, which made me wince in embarrassment, as I had somewhat naively believed my friend. I can no longer ask her if she was teasing me, or if she made up the story and then came to believe it herself, as happens, or if she had indeed seen the canoe and artifacts in the cave, or if the cave itself was a fantasy. That we could never find it after many attempts should have told me something, I admit. I was once taken by my brother into what was called the Vagina Cave, a lava tube whose entrance was a damp rock-strewn crevice in the middle of open brush, concealed by the ferns and wild orchids growing in a narrow rivulet of water. One had to squeeze into the opening (either head or feet-first, your choice), only to land in an enormous cavern where it is said the high chiefesses of Hawaiʻi Island had gone to give birth. The name of the cave refers to a large representation on the floor of the chamber, both carved and natural, of a woman’s vagina with rose-colored labia, on either side of which were ledges strewn with the remnants of frayed and desiccated mats and water gourds. My brother made me swear not to tell anyone about the cave, as it was on private property belonging to the Bishop Estate, and for years I kept my promise. Others knew about the cave, however, and when it became evident that people were visiting it, activists buried the entrance, and it can no longer be found. I tell this story only because years later, when I did describe the cave to friends, no one believed me.

Nancy grew up in Manoa Valley in Honolulu in a distinctive house designed by the architect Charles W. Dickey, who also designed Pauahi Hall at Punahou, where we went to school, the Alexander and Baldwin building downtown, the charming cottages at the old Halekulani Hotel, and the Waikiki Theater where we saw our first movies (“Imitation of Life” with Lana Turner, and Susan Kohner, who is beaten in an alleyway by Troy Donahue when he discovers that she is black).

A slumber party in Manoa, circa 1954, to celebrate Nancy’s birthday. The friend with whom I swim at Mahukona is standing far left. I am in the middle in a striped t-shirt, above Nancy, whose two hands are raised in front of her. We seem to be wearing lipstick.
A slumber party in Manoa, circa 1954, to celebrate Nancy’s birthday. The friend with whom I swim at Mahukona is standing far left. I am in the middle in a striped t-shirt, above Nancy, whose two hands are raised in front of her. We seem to be wearing lipstick.

This is another story about Nancy, again taken from I Myself Have Seen It:

Not so long ago, a friend sitting on the beach at her familyʻs beach house at Malaekahana on the north shore of Oʻahu happened to notice a turtle, the size and shape of a quarter, staggering across the sand to the sea. The turtle, after many cumbersome attempts, at last tumbled into the surf where, to my friendʻs dismay, it began to drown. She dashed into the water, and after some trouble, she found it, but the turtle was not strong enough to swim on its own, despite being ferried beyond the breaking surf to deep water, and she reluctantly carried it back to shore. She filled a bucket with seawater and went to the Kahuku market, the old company store where indebted Chinese and Japanese workers once forfeited their meager weekly wages for scrip (as opposed to what was called cash-money), and she bought raw shrimp, which she chopped into minuscule pieces to feed the turtle. After a few days, when it grew apparent that the turtle was dying, she called the Oceanic Institute near Makapuʻu to inquire if she should alter the turtle’s diet or the temperature of the water. She was startled to learn upon describing the turtle that she had rescued a species last seen in 1943, so rare as to be thought extinct. Her picture, with the turtle balanced on the tip of her finger, was on the front page of the newspaper and she was given a lifetime pass to the Institute, which promptly confiscated the turtle.

This story, I swear, is true.

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5 thoughts on “Mourning Rituals

  1. Flora Biddle March 15, 2015 / 11:24 pm

    what WONDERFUL stories dear Susanna, I love them. . .

    Like

  2. Jill & John March 15, 2015 / 11:38 pm

    Nice to see Nancy! Luv Jill

    Sent from my iPad

    >

    Like

  3. Fiona Lewis March 16, 2015 / 6:46 pm

    Magical, want to hear more please!

    Like

  4. paintshark March 18, 2015 / 9:31 pm

    I am always torn between wanting to find the hidden and loving that it cannot be found. Mysterious Hawai’i. Really enjoying these stories. Thank you.

    Like

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