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  • Death Rites and Hawaiian Royalty: Funerary Practices in the Kamehameha and Kalākaua Dynasties, 1819–1953 by Ralph Thomas Kam
  • Douglas Askman
Death Rites and Hawaiian Royalty: Funerary Practices in the Kamehameha and Kalākaua Dynasties, 1819–1953. By Ralph Thomas Kam. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2017. ix + 242 pp. Glossary. Notes. Bibliography. Index. Illustrated. $39.95 paper

Ralph Thomas Kam’s Death Rites and Hawaiian Royalty presents an analysis of Hawaiian royal funerals from the death of Kamehameha I well into the twentieth century. Kam utilizes a variety of sources, in both Hawaiian and English, including newspapers, correspondence, and official documents. Although the author offers a brief exploration of traditional Hawaiian burial customs for ali‘i, or those of chiefly rank, his focus is on the transformation of aristocratic [End Page 163] funerals by the advent of Western practices, both Christian and secular, during the nineteenth century. Nevertheless, while Western rituals resulted in dramatic changes in ali‘i death rites, Kam also highlights the persistence of traditional practices now performed in new contexts.

The book is organized chronologically and presents descriptions of dozens of ali‘i funerals from both the Kamehameha and Kalākaua dynasties. The entries for more prominent individuals, such as monarchs and their consorts, are often subdivided into sections for lying in state, funerals, and burials. For more elaborate royal rites, the author also includes lists of those involved in the funeral processions, which were in themselves often grand manifestations of mourning for ali‘i. While the funerals of Hawaiian royal rulers have been analyzed in a variety of literature, this volume benefits from the inclusion of numerous lesser-known ali‘i from both royal houses. Although these accounts are often necessarily brief, due to the lack of fuller documentation, their inclusion adds depth to the work. In addition, the division of the lengthier entries into various component parts facilitates a comparative analysis of the ceremonial events associated with different royal deaths.

Death Rites and Hawaiian Royalty also covers the funeral ceremonies for royalty after the overthrow of the monarchy, including not only those observances following Queen Lili‘uokalani’s death in 1917, but stretching to the last burial in the Kalākaua crypt at Mauna ‘Ala, the Royal Mausoleum, in 1953. The book concludes with chapters on royal burial sites and undertakers, and includes a discussion of the proposed future burial of Abigail Kawānanakoa at Mauna ‘Ala, highlighting the contemporary significance of royal burial practices in Hawai‘i today. Although post-monarchy era royal funerals, especially Queen Lili‘uokalani’s, have received significant scholarly attention, Kam’s work profits by presenting royal death rituals as a continuum stretching from the nineteenth century into the twentieth, and even the twenty-first, centuries.

While this volume is a compendium of Hawaiian royal funerals, the author also points to a number of themes demonstrating the importance of ali‘i death rites for the institution of the Hawaiian monarchy and the Hawaiian nation as a whole. Much of the book’s value rests in these topics. As an example, Kam points to the enormous expenses that were sometimes incurred in honoring deceased royalty. The costs relating to the funeral of King Kamehameha III in 1854, for instance, amounted to over $26,000, which was more than half of the total funds on hand in the government treasury at the time. While subsequent rulers of the Kamehameha dynasty had less expensive funerals, the costs were nevertheless substantial, indicating the significance of these ceremonies for the monarchy.

The magnitude of many royal funerals, especially the processions, also demonstrates their importance. The author explains that Kamehameha III’s [End Page 164] funeral procession extended for half a mile, while King Lunalilo’s 1874 procession included fifteen hundred participants. Magnificent displays were limited not only to rulers, and Kam cites a report giving the length of Princess Ruth Ke‘elikōlani’s funeral train in 1883 as a mile and a quarter in length. The funeral of King Kalākaua’s youngest sister, Princess Miriam Likelike, in 1887 required the purchase of over 800 sets of clothing for mourners.

Ali‘i funeral ceremonies retained their grandeur even after the end...


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