Hindu Funeral Traditions

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In terms of number of followers, Hinduism is one of the largest religions in the world. The Anpyeshti rituals (or death rituals) are thought to be part of a larger tapestry of rituals that occur over the course of a person’s life. Important moments, including birth, marriage, and death, are marked by samskaras (rites of passage) that are meant to change a person—to take them from one state of being to another.

The death samskaras are meant to transform a Hindu from a living person into the next stage of existence after dying, says Tracy Pintchman, PhD, director of global and international studies and a Hindu scholar at Loyola University in Chicago. Yet it’s worth noting that there are many and distinct understandings among Hindus of what, exactly, takes place after death because of the vast number of sects, subsects, regional variations, and customs associated with Hinduism.

Hindus believe that, although the physical body dies, the soul has no beginning and no end. They believe in the concept of rebirth, and the ultimate goal is to achieve moksha, a transcendent state free of desire. Most of the time, Hindu death rituals culminate in the cremation of the body. Fire is seen as both an important religious symbol and a transformative act, turning something ordinary into the extraordinary. Fire releases the jiva (or living essence) into another state.

There is considerable variation in what takes place between the body’s death and its cremation—particularly between American-born Indians and the different regions within India—but all activities center around preparing the body for the cremation ceremony. These centuries-long traditions are intended both to mourn the deceased person and to help them move into their next phase.

What happens at a Hindu funeral

Most people will refrain from touching the body as much as possible, as it’s seen as impure. Instead, designated relatives (usually male) will begin preparing for the cremation. The body is washed with purified water and, for some, a holy bath of milk, ghee (clarified butter), and honey. The hands are tied into a position of prayer, the body wrapped in a plain white sheet and wrapped in a flowered garland. While they work to prepare the body, the family recites traditional mantras.

Although there are no specific rules to timing, cremation usually happens within a day of death, and preparations take place within the home.  Many Hindu funeral homes recognize the importance of the family washing the body and will allow the family to help or oversee preparations.

If there is a wake, it is brief. The body is placed in a simple, unadorned casket, with ash or sandalwood (for men) or turmeric (for women) applied to the forehead. Family and friends will gather around the casket and recite hymns or religious mantras.

Afterward, the male members of the family will transport the body to the cremation grounds, known as shmashana. If possible, they will transport the casket on foot, though it’s possible to use a vehicle as well. The procession is led by the eldest male (called the karta) and is usually made up entirely of men. As they carry the casket, the men will chant to signal their procession to passerby. Woman will not traditionally accompany the funeral procession. Close female relatives will continue the mourning rituals at the home, including performing songs of lament.

At the cremation, the karta will circle the cremation pyre three times, recite verses, and light the pyre on fire. Afterward, the procession members will make an offering of food and water, to help the deceased person’s living essence move on to the next phase.

Hindu cremation grounds in India tend to be public places near bodies of water. Once consumed, the body’s ashes are placed in the water. Ashes may also be held on to until family can go to the holy city of Varanasi to immerse a loved one’s ashes in the water there. In the United States, only crematories may cremate bodies. However, most crematories will allow for ceremonies before the cremation and will allow for guests to be present at the cremation itself. Therefore, most of the rituals may still be observed.

The cremation of the deceased marks the beginning of the mourning period, which typically lasts for 10 to 13 days. Throughout the mourning period, the rite of preta-karma will be performed, which assists the disembodied spirit of the deceased to obtain a new body for reincarnation. The family of the deceased will also stay at home and receive visitors, though mourning rituals may differ depending on the community. The mourning period ends with a ceremony called shraddha, which takes place in the family home and centers around a meal. After this time, close male relatives of the departed will undergo a purification rite to cleanse themselves from the pollution of death, ending the period of impurity.

Hindus commemorate all ancestors during a celebration called pitru paksha. This event lasts for several days and occurs on a yearly basis.

Planning a Hindu funeral

Traditionally, the funeral should take place as soon as possible (by the next dawn or dusk, if possible). A Hindu priest can help guide the decision-making process and direct the family to a Hindu-friendly funeral home.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can Hindus donate their organs?

Organ donation is acceptable for Hindus, as there are no Hindu laws prohibiting organ or tissue donation.

Can Hindus be embalmed?

Embalming, while not traditionally performed due to the swift nature of funerary events, is acceptable in Hinduism.

What is the proper etiquette for visitors to a Hindu funeral?

Flowers may be sent to the family of the deceased, although this is not expected. Guests may gather with the family after the funeral service for a meal and prayers. It is traditional for visitors to bring gifts of fruit to the grieving family.

What is the dress code at a Hindu funeral?

White is a vital color to the Hindu culture and often worn to a funeral to symbolize purity and to show respect. Other colors are allowed, but avoid black, says Pintchman. Dress doesn’t have to be particularly formal or fussy;  simple daytime attire is fine.

What happens to the cremated remains of a Hindu?

Traditionally, the ashes of the departed should be immersed in the Ganges River, though more and more other rivers are becoming acceptable substitutes. Some Hindus living outside of India return to India to immerse the ashes of their loved one in the Ganges. There are also companies that will arrange for the shipment of the cremated remains to India and will submerge the ashes in the Ganges on a loved one’s behalf.

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