What to Expect When Attending a Traditional Hindu Funeral

-Within Hinduism are a number or sects, sub-sects, and regional variations with different beliefs; but generally, Hindus believe that life and death are part of the concept of “samsara,” or rebirth for the purpose of attaining “moksha,” or salvation—freedom from desire. Once moksha is attained (through a series of rebirths, each successive birth bringing the soul closer to moksha), the soul is absorbed into Brahman, the divine force and ultimate reality.

-When death is approaching, the priest and family members are summoned to be with the dying person. Those present chant mantras. When death seems imminent, the body, if possible, is placed atop a grass mat on the floor, and a small amount of water from the Ganges River is placed into the mouth of the dying person. (If these acts are not possible prior to death, they should be performed immediately after death). Upon death, the body is regarded as impure; therefore those present should avoid any unnecessary touching of the body.

-Preparation for the funeral begins immediately since traditionally, the funeral should take place by the following dusk or dawn, whichever occurs first. There are no laws prohibiting Hindu organ or tissue transfer, consequently, organ donation is permissible.

-Traditionally for the “abhisegam,” (the holy bath), the body is washed by family members and close friends in a mixture of milk, ghee (clarified butter), yogurt, and honey. The body may alternatively be washed in purified water. For the ritual washing, the head of the deceased should be facing southward, and a lighted oil lamp, as well as a picture of the deceased’s favorite deity, should be placed by the head of the deceased. Those washing the body should recite mantras during the ritual. (Many Hindu funeral homes recognize the significance of the washing of the dead by family members and friends. But in the event that is not possible, the funeral home may wash and dress the body). Once the body has been sufficiently washed, the big toes are tied together; the hands are placed palm-to-palm as if in prayer, and the body is shrouded in a white cloth. In cases where the deceased is a married woman who preceded her husband in death, the body is dressed in red.

-Traditionally, all Hindus, except babies, children, and saints, are cremated. Generally, there is a brief wake prior to cremation. The body is displayed in a simple, inexpensive casket. “Vibuti” (ash) or “chandanam” (sandalwood) is applied to the forehead of a man, and turmeric is applied to the head of a woman. A garland of flowers is placed around the neck of the deceased, and holy basil is placed into the coffin. During the wake, family and friends gather around the casket and recite mantras and/or hymns. At the end of the wake, but before the body is removed for the cremation, rice balls, called “pinda,” are placed near the casket. At the end of the wake, the casket is removed feet-first and taken to the cremation site.

-Traditionally, the casket is placed onto a gurney and taken to the cremation site; but today, a hearse may also be used to transport the coffin. If a vehicle is used, the eldest male relative, referred to as “karta,” and another male relative accompany the body. (Traditionally, only males attend a cremation).

– Hindu cremations customarily take place on the Ganges River. The family builds a funeral pyre and places the body atop the pyre. The karta will circle the body three times, walking counter-clockwise so that the body is always to the left of the karta. While circling the body, the karta sprinkles holy water upon the pyre. Thereafter, the karta sets the pyre afire, and those present remain until the body is completely consumed by the flames. (Embalming is permissible in Hinduism. For Hindus living outside India, arrangements can be made for the body to be shipped to India for cremation at the River Ganges with a proxy karta). Sati (also “satī” or “suttee”), the practice whereby a widow immolates herself (or is forced or culturally required to) on the funeral pyre of her husband, is abolished but reportedly still conducted in ultra-traditional or remote, rural areas.

-In the United States, for example, only crematories may conduct cremations, but most crematories will allow for traditional ceremonies and rituals to take place at the facility. When the cremation takes place at a crematorium in the United States, for example, the body should be brought in feet-first, ideally facing south. Those gathered will pray, then the karta will perform the circling-ritual. Thereafter the body is cremated, being placed into the incinerator feet-first. When the body is fully cremated, those gathered depart.

-Upon returning home, the family will bathe and don fresh clothing. The family will gather for a meal, and a priest may visit the home to purify it with incense.

-Like in Buddhism, white is the color of mourning and will be worn by family members of the deceased. Non-family members should wear conservative clothing in black or dark colors. Mourners will be required to remove shoes, therefore presentable socks should be worn.

-The day after the cremation, the karta will return to the crematorium and collect the ashes. Traditionally, the ashes are immersed in the Ganges River. For Hindus living outside India, arrangements can be with companies that will transport the cremated remains for immersion in the Ganges River. (Other rivers are increasingly being accepted as suitable substitutes).

-Hindus mourn for 13 days, beginning with the date of the cremation. During the period of mourning, family members will remain at home and receive visitors. A photograph of the deceased may be prominently displayed, a garland of flowers typically placed onto the photograph. Throughout the mourning period, the rite of “preta-karma” will be performed, its purpose being to assist the disembodied spirit in identifying a new body for reincarnation.

-One year after death, the family will observe “sraddha,” which pays homage to the deceased. The karta will invite Brahmins, members of the highest caste, to the home for an elaborate meal, treating them as he would his own parents.

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