Will you be attending a Hindu funeral for the first time? Hinduism is the world’s third largest religion, with over a billion followers. Here is an overview of the general Hindu customs and traditions surrounding death, burial, and mourning to be aware of when attending a funeral.
Hinduism arose around 500 B.C. and is mostly practiced by Asian Indians. Hinduism does not have a founder and no common doctrine. Hindus believe that all living creatures have a soul or spirit of true self that is eternal. The purpose of life is to discover the divine essence that they believe is in every soul. Hindu gods and goddesses guide believers to transcend the world as ordinarily looked at and know the divine presence. The rituals and meditations practiced are a road map to lead the soul to the direct experience of God or self.
When the physical body dies, the Hindu belief is that the individual soul continues on a journey as it has no beginning and no end. Karma is a major factor in what happens to your soul after you pass, some souls will be reincarnated in the body of someone else. A soul that has discovered the truth about the nature of reality may become one with Brahman, the birthplace of all forms in visible reality.
After death, the final rites are called Antyesti, which means last sacrifice. The ritual returns the body to the five elements, which include air, water, fire, earth, and space.
At the Time of Death
In the Hindu religion, a person will usually pass away at home, surrounded by family. The body remains at the home after death until cremation, which takes place within 24 hours. When death is near, a Hindu priest is typically contacted to gather with the family. Mantras will be chanted, and the dying person should ideally be situated on a grass mat on the ground for the transition.
After death, the body is washed — by the family or, if that is not possible, then by the funeral home. Traditionally the wash contains a mixture of yogurt, milk, ghee, and honey, or the body may be washed in purified water.
Usually the deceased’s big toes will be tied together, the hands will be placed in a prayer position, and the body will be covered in a white sheet. A married woman who dies before her husband will usually be covered in a red sheet.
The funeral takes place as soon as possible, usually within 24 hours. The funeral service is called a wake. An open casket will be at the wake and guest are expected to view the body but should not touch it. A priest will lead the ceremony, which includes the chanting of mantras and hymns. Before the body is removed for cremation, it is traditional to place rice balls near the casket.
Guests of other faiths are welcome and may either participate in the funeral customs or not, as they wish. Please be aware that mourners are supposed to wear white to the funeral — and it is inappropriate to wear black. Casual dress is acceptable. It is not acceptable to take photos or video at the funeral. Flowers are an appropriate offering for the ceremony but bringing food is not an appropriate gesture.
All bodies are cremated except for babies, very young children, and saints, who are buried. After the funeral, typically only men who are close family members will accompany the body to the cremation site. Traditionally the ashes are to be scattered in the Ganges river in India and there are companies that will transport the ashes to India and deposit them in the Ganges. If that is not possible, it is appropriate that the ashes are scattered at a sacred body of water or somewhere important to the deceased.
Ten days after death, a traditional ceremony called preta-karma is held at the home of the deceased to liberate their soul for the ascent to heaven. The mourning period is observed at the grieving family’s home and will last from 10 to 30 days. It is proper to visit and be with the family during this time. A photograph of the deceased may be prominently displayed during mourning.
Fruit is the traditional gift to bring to the home during the mourning period, though flowers are not specifically prohibited.
One year after passing, the mourning family will observe a memorial event called Sraddha. The family invites Brahmins, members of the highest caste, to have an elaborate meal in their home.