How Does a Hindu Funeral Work?
Within Hinduism, like with most religions, there are a variety of sects that come with varying and differing beliefs. However, the general beliefs about life and death being the part of the concept of samsara (rebirth) are mutual.
One of the major goals in a Hindus life is to become free from the concept of desire. Becoming free from desire will mean a person can escape the cycle of samsara and then attain moksha, which is where the soul is absorbed into Brahman, the divine force and ultimate reality.
A lot of the traditions involved in a Hindu funeral are very symbolic, as discussed below:
Time of Death
When a person of the Hindu faith is approaching death, a priest should be contacted who will gather the family to be with the dying person. The priest and the family present will chant mantras or play out loud a recording of the mantras. The body just before death should be transported, if possible, to a glass matt on the floor. Then, a small amount of water from the Ganges River will be placed into the dying person’s mouth. However, if this is not possible before death, this must be carried out just after death has occurred.
As soon as the death has happened, it is not acceptable to touch the body unless necessary (for example, moving the body) as it is seen an impure.
In Hindu tradition, the preparations for the funeral begin immediately. It is believed that the funeral should take place as soon as possible, usually by the next dusk or dawn depending on which occurs first.
Before the service, the body is washed by the family members and close friends. If this is not possible the funeral home will wash and dress the body accordingly. This washing a considered a ritual, and the deceased’s head should be facing southwards. Additionally, a lit oil lamp as well a picture of a deity should be kept next to the head. The body is washed with a mixture of milk, yoghurt, ghee (a type of butter) and honey. It may also be washed in purified water. During the washing, those present must recite mantras.
Next, after the body has been dried, the toes must be tied together and the hands should be placed palm-to-palm in a position of prayer. If the deceased was a married woman who had died before her husband, the body should be dressed in red.
In Hinduism, there isn’t much importance placed on the wake and t tends to be brief and followed by the cremation of the body. The preparation of the body will begin with the body being displayed in a simple casket, so not to show the importance of wealth in death. Ash and sandalwood are applied to the forehead of a man, meanwhile, turmeric should be applied to the forehead of a woman. A garland of flowers is placed around the neck and holy basil will be placed into the casket.
During the wake, those present will all gather around the casket and recite mantras. To conclude the wake, rice balls are placed near the casket before it is removed feet first and brought to the location of cremation.
It is customary for all Hindus to be cremated rather than buried. Cremation will take place unless the deceased is a baby, a child or a saint.
It is a tradition for the casket to be carried on a stretcher and walked this way to the site of cremation, although nowadays it is also acceptable to transport the body in a vehicle. It is the case when the body is in a vehicle, the eldest male relative (known as “karta”) and another male elder will accompany the casket. It is prohibited for women to attend the cremation, only men must be present.
Historically speaking, Hindu cremations would take place on the Ganges River in India. The family would build a pyre and place the body on the pyre. The Karta will circle the body three times in an anti-clockwise direction so the body stays on his left side, and he will sprinkle holy water on the pyre. The next step would be to set the pyre on fire and those present would remain until the body was entirely burned. It is still possible to be cremated in this way as there are companies that are dedicated to arranging shipment of the body to India.
Today, the cremation will take place in a crematorium in the UK. Crematoriums will allow this ceremony to still take place before the body is burned and will allow people to be present for the cremation itself. The body must be brought into the crematorium feet-first, ideally with the feet facing in a southward direct. Those present must pray while the Karta performs the ritual circling of the body. After this ritual is complete, the body is set for cremation and should be put into the incinerator feet-first. The funeral ends when the body has been fully burned. The price of a funeral with a cremation is cheaper but is still highly expensive. To freeze today’s cost, check out Perfect Funeral Plans.
Following the completion of the cremation, the family will return home. Whilst at home they will bathe and change into fresh clothing. Once ready, the family will all gather to share a meal. It is common for a priest to visit the family home and purify it with incense.
On the day following the cremation, the Karta will go back to the crematory and collect the ashes of the deceased. It is tradition to immerse the ashes into the Ganges River, though other rivers are now being used for this purpose now. Again, there are companies that aid Hindus which are living outside of India in transporting their ashes into India to be submerged into the Ganges River.
The cremation marks a 13 day mourning period for the family. They will stay at home and receive visitors. A photograph of the person who passed away will be displayed with a garland of flowers around the frame. During the period of mourning, the rite of “preta-karma” is to be performed. This assists the disembodied spirit of the deceased to obtain a new body for reincarnation.
A year after the date of the death, the family will observe a memorial called a “sradda”, which pays homage to the person who had died a year ago. This event involves the Karta inviting the members of the highest caste to the home and providing a meal, treating the same as he would his own parents.