World Funeral Customs: Hindu Funeral Traditions

Religious/Cultural Traditions

Posted on October 20, 2015 by Morgan Marant

Background on Hinduism

Hinduism is the dominant religion of the Indian sub-continent and the third largest religion in the world, with around a billion followers. It is also widely held as the oldest organized religion in the world. Hinduism is considered to be a fusion of ancient cultural traditions from all across India.  As such, it is a very open-ended religion that prescribes general philosophical principles, rather than a rigid set of beliefs. Most Hindus worship many different gods, but consider Brahma to be the absolute God from which all others are derived. They also practice a code of daily morality based on karma, dharma and other societal norms. The Vedas are the oldest and most sacred Hindu texts.

Emotional Tone of Hindu Funerals

Like Buddhists, Hindus believe in a complex system of spiritual rebirth known as reincarnation. When a person dies, they are soon reborn into another, better or worse state of being, as determined by their overall karmic (moral) performance in their latest life. Thus, the natural death of a respected adult is considered a happy occasion within the Hindu community, because this means the deceased will be reincarnated into an even better life. That said, it is very normal and acceptable to express grief at the passing of a loved one. Excessive mourning should be avoided, though.

Death and Hinduism

When a Hindu is close to death, they should face east (towards the gods) and focus on reciting their personal mantra for comfort and purity of mind. An oil should also be lit bedside, close to their head. Traditionally, Hindus choose to die at home, surrounded by family. Hospitalization should be sought whenever necessary and beneficial, but if death is imminent, the person should ideally be brought home to die in as natural a fashion as possible. (Many Hindus embrace conscious physical pain as a way of atoning for past sins, accepting fate, and gaining good karma for the next life.) Wherever the location, family members should keep vigil around their loved one while praying, singing hymns and reading scripture. A family member should continue to whisper the loved one’s mantra into their ear if they become unable to recite it themselves.

Organ Donation and Embalming in Hinduism

There is no Hindu teaching that prohibits one from donating their organs upon death. On the contrary, Hindu mythology features stories in which parts of the human body are used for the benefit of other humans and society as a whole. Many authorities hold that Hinduism does not accept embalming rooted in the Hindu belief that natural death and decay should be embraced and respected. In practice, this is not an adamant prohibition, and embalming for those of Hindu faith is known to occur. This is generally for repatriation to India or the South Pacific and for the purposes of viewing and funerary rites at the family home prior to final cremation. Traditionally, a dead body should be cremated before sunset, and embalming is neither common nor widespread.

Method of Disposition in Hinduism

Hindus originally used to bury their dead in ancient times, but cremation became the religion’s primary method of disposition thousands of years ago. Cremation should occur within 24 hours after death.

Body Preparation of Hindus

It is customary for family members and close friends to help wash the body after death. This ritual, known as abhisegam, can be carried out at the family home or at a funeral home. Purified water is usually used to cleanse the body (which is thought to be very impure in the immediate aftermath of death). Afterwards, the body is usually dressed in new, but inexpensive white clothes or shroud. Traditionally, simple white sheets are used. Exceptions to this is if it is a young, unmarried girl  or a married woman who leaves a husband behind, she should be dressed in red or yellow. Once dressed, the body should be laid in a casket or a stretcher, with the feet pointing north towards the gods. Sacred ash (bhasma) or sandal paste is then applied to the forehead and a few drops of holy water are trickled into the mouth. Vibuti (ash) is added to the forehead of a man and tumeric is added to the forehead of a woman. Next, a garland of flowers should be placed around the neck, and holy basil (tulsi) is placed on the right side of the body. After the big toes of the body have been tied together and the hands placed in a prayer position, an oil-burning lamp and a picture of a favorite god should be placed near the head. Finally, the body and casket should be fully adorned with a variety of flowers.

Dress Code for Hindu Funerals

White casual clothing is the norm for men and women at Hindu funerals. Open-toed shoes and modest jewelry are also allowed to be worn. Black formal attire is considered inappropriate.

Wake

Hindu wakes always involve an open casket so that mourners may view and pray over the body. The body should not be touched at this point, however, since it is considered a source of impurity. A priest and the senior-ranking male family member (known as the karta) should preside over the funeral rites. Throughout the ceremony, prayers, hymns and mantras are read from holy books such as the Vedas and the Mahabharata. The wake centers on a fire sacrifice (homa) that takes the place of the traditional cremation ceremony in many modern Hindu communities. The ritual involves offerings to ancestors and gods, to ensure that the deceased has a peaceful transition to his or her next life.

Hindu Funeral Service

There is no equivalent to a funeral service in Hindu culture. Once the wake ends, mourners are invited to attend the cremation.

Cremation Ceremony

The cremation (mukhagni) traditionally takes place at a pyre situated next to a riverbank, or on it. In many modern communities, however, the cremation now usually occurs at a crematorium. Most crematories allow for guests to be present at the cremation and to perform the traditional Hindu rituals that accompany it. It is customary for only men to attend the cremation ceremony. The casket/body should be carried feet-first into the crematorium. Those present may then briefly pray over the body. Next, the chief mourner (karta) sprinkles water on the body while encircling it three times in a counter-clockwise direction. Finally, he flips the fire switch after the body has been placed in the cremation chamber.

Hindu Funeral Reception

The immediate family and close relatives return home after the cremation. Everyone is then required to bathe, change into fresh clothes, and help clean up the house. Afterwards, all gather for a meal.

Extended Mourning and Memorials

The karta returns to the crematory the morning after to collect the ashes of the deceased. Traditionally, the ashes should then be submerged in the Ganges River in India. In modern times, companies exist worldwide that ship the ashes to the Ganges to help perform this sacred rite. However, it is becoming more and more acceptable to submerge the ashes in rivers that are geographically close to the deceased. The Hindu mourning period last 13 days and it officially starts immediately after the cremation ceremony. Traditionally, the family does not visit any temples, public festivals, or others’ homes during this two-week period. Close relatives and neighbors, though, come visit the family and bring them prepared meals to help ease their burden. The family enjoys a special dinner of the deceased’s favorite foods on the third, fifth, seventh or ninth day. A plate is offered to the spirit (preta) of the deceased at the dinner table, and is later left in an abandoned place outside. There are additional memorials on the thirty-first day and on the one-year anniversary.