Hindu funeral rituals differ all over the world as each family may have different ideas and values that they consider more important or more appropriate for their loved ones. Whether you are a guest, member of the family, or organizer of the funeral, there are customs and rituals that need to be observed to show your respect.
So, let’s talk about Hinduism and the rituals Hindus practice when someone they love dies.
Hinduism is one of the world’s oldest and most populous religions, while its adherents take their beliefs, rituals, and relationships very seriously. Hinduism has over a billion believers in Southeast Asia alone, though it is practiced all over the world.
These beliefs cannot be summed up in a short paragraph and they go much deeper than can be expressed in words. Hinduism is sometimes called the Vedic Religion or Sanatana Dharma, and it encompasses a wide range of personal and sacred beliefs, many that relate to reincarnation.
Tolerance, acceptance, and good deeds are the strongest values that a Hindu can attain in their current lives. The more that a person can embody these positive values, the better chance that they have of being reincarnated into a being of higher moral and intellectual existence.
Hindus believe that death is a natural process of evolution and the affair may be less emotional than a traditional funeral. It is a celebration of the life lived and a life soon to be lived. It’s a going-away party. Preta-Karma, adhering to traditional death rituals, is very important for the soul to continue on their sacred journey.
When a Hindu feels that death is close, within several days or so, they begin the chanting of Om, which is said to give them direct passage to moksa, or moksha, which is the time they will spend with their personal god.
When the time is close, a dying person will be moved from their bed onto a special mattress on the floor where the family will shave their head in preparation for a clean transfer of their soul, or more accurately, their ‘self’. The ground is then anointed with sacred waters to aid in their journey and to keep their self from remaining behind. The individual is moved straight to the ground right before they pass on.
Water that is supposed to be taken directly from the crossroads of the Ganges and the Yamuna is poured into their mouths and the body is wrapped in a colorful cloth that represents the life and age of the deceased. Close relatives may take a walk around the shrouded body clockwise before they commit it for cremation.
Rituals begin before death and continue for at least ten days afterward. It is most important for a Hindu to be cremated within 24 hours as the act of burning takes the self out of our earthly realm completely and quickly. It aids in their transfer to their next stop, wherever that may be.
Sacred wood and ghee can be placed with the body in the coffin before entering the crematorium and many funeral homes will allow a small fire to be lit inside the coffin before it is sent into the flames. Many places will allow male family members to carry the body around the chamber first, as ritual dictates. The chief mourner may start the official fire.
In an ideal world, the ashes would be placed into The Ganges River, but as all water is sacred and connected, any flowing body of water may be used. The ashes could be sent back to family or friends in India for release there.
After official cremation, the funeral and mourning period follows specific rules:
- The purification of the household is essential. After a person’s death, the family members will return to the home for cleaning and purification of themselves and the home.
- A pot of water and a lamp are placed in the spot where the self left the body. Icons may be covered in a white sheet.
- Family and friends do not visit each other’s homes during the initial mourning period of 10 days, though meals may be dropped off to ease the family’s burden. The family will do nothing public in the meantime.
- Mourning in your personal way is acceptable, but excessive emotions are usually looked down upon. Joy and excitement are encouraged. Being positive about the deceased’s future is excellent. The released soul can feel your emotions and thoughts, so joy, confidence, and strength are preferred. Extended grieving may not allow the self to transition fully and some Hindus believe that crying is inappropriate.
What are our responsibilities as friends?
It is best to offer your condolences immediately after the death as opposed to during the mourning period, which is sacred. A quick visit, letter, or telephone call are all perfectly appropriate. You can and should visit the family again after the ten-day period of mourning is complete. Gifts of fruit are widely accepted and appreciated.
Specific chants and mantras will be said at the funeral. Many times, a Hindu priest will lead everyone through them if you are unfamiliar. Usually, people who are not Hindu will sit quietly and respectfully during the chanting. Sending positive thoughts towards the person and their journey forward is a great way to say goodbye.
No gifts or flowers should be sent or brought to the actual funeral but can be given ahead of time or after the mourning period. White conservative clothing is worn instead of black. Sandals without socks are the most appropriate footwear if the funeral occurs at the temple as shoes must be taken off at the entrance.
In more progressive places there may be a gathering after the funeral in the home of the deceased or their relatives, but sometimes this is just for the family. You will want to make sure you are invited before you attend anything other than the official funeral.
Hindu funeral customs and their rituals are steeped in beautiful and very meaningful traditions that deserve our honor and respect. Whether they be complex community gatherings or simple affairs, it is important to take our responsibilities as guests seriously while also finding a way to say our perfect goodbye.