When you request for HBase to delete data, either explicitly using a Delete method or implicitly using a threshold such as the maximum number of versions or the TTL, HBase does not delete the data immediately

Instead, it writes a deletion marker, called a tombstone, to the HFile, which is the physical file where a given RegionServer stores its region of a column family. The tombstone markers are processed during major compaction operations, when HFiles are rewritten without the deleted data included.

Even after major compactions, "deleted" data may not actually be deleted. You can specify the KEEP_DELETED_CELLS option for a given column family, and the tombstones will be preserved in the HFile even after major compaction. One scenario where this approach might be useful is for data retention policies.

Another reason deleted data may not actually be deleted is if the data would be required to restore a table from a snapshot which has not been deleted. In this case, the data is moved to an archive during a major compaction, and only deleted when the snapshot is deleted. This is a good reason to monitor the number of snapshots saved in HBase.