Comprehensive Guide to Hindu Funerals
In Hinduism, it is believed that after someone dies their soul is reborn again into a new body. Reincarnation is the foundation of the Hindu funeral practice. Even though it is the world’s third largest religion, finding information on the customs and rituals of a Hindu Antyeshti (funeral) can be a challenge. In this guide, provide helpful information related to this and touch on activities prior to death, upon death, the preparation of the body, the cremation and ceremony, and the scattering or immersion of ashes.
Hinduism & Cremation
It is common practice that the body of the deceased be cremated. Hindus place little value on the body itself. Hindus believe that the body can prevent the soul from moving on to the next journey. Thus, the decedent’s family will hold the funeral as quickly as possible. Therefore, in Hindu funerals, the role of cremation is to sever the ties of the soul to the body that it is leaving, freeing it to move toward mukti (freedom from a continuous cycle of death and rebirth).
The only Hindus not typically cremated are babies, children, and saints, who are believed to be pure and unattached to their bodies; therefore they may be buried instead of cremated.
This guide will outline some of the beliefs, practices, and customs surrounding death in Hinduism. It is important to note that there is a general set of Antyeshti (Hindu Funeral) rites but every group and sect has slightly different practices.
Activities Prior to Death (When Death is Imminent)
The following activities are typically performed when it is certain that the death is likely to occur soon. Contact a priest so they can give proper guidance and can be available for a ceremony if desired. If a patient is in the hospital, work with medical staff to see that the activities are performed.
Water from the Ganges River, (holy ganga water) should be sprinkled on the body of the person and/or poured into the mouth of the person. Chant divine names (Ram, Krishna, Shiva …) while administering the water. If the Ganga water is not available, purified water can be used.
Chanting of Divine Names
- Chant names of Bhagwaan. 2. If desired and possible, play appropriate Bhajans, Chant the names of God on the right ear, Vishnu SahasranAma stotra etc. Close family members should perform the chanting, however, all attending can join if they want. Chant at least 108 times or more:
Following this a family may also wish to read the 7th, 12th and 15th chapter or entire Bhagavad Gita or any selected chapter(s) of Ramayana or any sacred scripture.
Immediately after death, first inform the family members and friends. Then contact a funeral home or crematorium.
The cost of cremation varies from state to state as well as from funeral home to funeral home. The actual cremation and services that may come along with it can be as low as a few hundred dollars (for a direct cremation) to well over ten thousand dollars. While the actual cremation is relatively straightforward, there are also many other services and factors to consider, all of which can quickly add to cremation costs.
Most traditions will have the body cleansed immediately after death. Often this ceremonial bathing will be performed by the women in the family. Following the bathing, the body is dressed in simple, usually white, clothing.
This Sanskrit verse is often recited after the body is washed and placed in clean clothing, prior to cremation that translates as such:
“Wealth will remain buried, cattle will remain in the pen, (his) wife will accompany (him) to the doorway, friends will accompany him to the crematorium, the body will come till the funeral pyre, but on the path to the next world, the jiva goes alone (with his karmas).”
The viewing and funeral ceremony should then be planned in a dignified manner. Viewing of the body is optional and should be decided by the family members. There are different customs and practices for Hindus regarding the antyeshti based on regional and family traditions.
Preparation of the Body
On the forehead of the body, Tilak should be applied in accordance with the tradition. It is customary to apply Chandan/Kumkum/Bhasma on the forehead. A garland containing Tulsi should be worn on the body if available. More than one garland may also be used if available. Any Maalas typically worn by the person or other Maalas may also be included.
Viewing / Wake
Many families generally hold a brief wake before cremation which is usually done in the family’s home but sometimes conducted at the funeral home or crematorium. During the wake, family and friends often gather around the casket and may recite hymns or mantras. At the end of the wake, the casket is removed feet-first and brought to the place of cremation.
Cremation & Ceremony (MukhAgni)
It is important that the cremation take place as soon as possible and ideally within 24 to 48 hours. During the ceremony, a chosen family member transfers powers to the Kartaa, which is the person actually performing the rites. Cremation should occur sometime between sunrise and sunset.
If the person is a male the preferred family member to facilitate the cremation are, in order: eldest son, eldest of the next available sons, grandson (son’s son), adopted son, grandson (daughter’s son), wife, daughter, younger brother, brother’s son (eldest to youngest available), father, elder brother, mother, daughter-in-law, sister, sister’s son, son-in-law, friend.
If the person is a female the preferred family member to facilitate the cremation are, in order: eldest son, eldest of the next available sons, grandson (son’s son), adopted son, grandson (daughter’s son), husband, daughter, husband’s younger brother, husband’s brother’s son, eldest to youngest available, husband’s father, husband’s elder brother, husband’s mother, daughter-in-law, husband’s sister’s son, friend.
If the preferred family members cannot make it to the cremation in time, the next closest relatives should attend and assist with anything needed.
The officiant is often a Hindu priest, who also presides over all the Hindu funeral rites, leading the family and other mourners in the various rituals. During the ceremony there is chanting, praying and singing. Rice balls (pind daan) or flowers are sometimes placed around the body.
What to Wear at a Hindu Funeral (Antyeshti)
Wearing the color black to a Hindu funeral is not appropriate. At a service and rather than wearing black, people wear all white. White garb is casual and can be worn from head to toe. It is encouraged that this is done in a conservative manner. Women should cover their arms and knees. Opened-toed shoes are acceptable and jewelry is also allowed but should be kept to a minimum.
Collecting of Ashes
The crematoriums offer the ashes (asti), generally a day or two after the cremation. Transfer the ashes to a container that dissolves in water and is friendly for the environment. The container should be carefully carried and safely stored at a location outside of the home (such as a garage). According to Hindu tradition, the container should not be taken inside a home, including the puja room. The container also should not be taken to any temple.
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Immersion of Ashes (Asti Visarjan)
Some families may want to take the ashes to India, to immerse in the Holy Ganga, sometimes at pilgrimage centers such as Haridwar. Teraloom Scattering Services provides a service on sending ashes to be scattered in India.
It is recommended that immersion of ashes should be performed before 10th day after death or as soon as possible. Immersion should be performed preferably by the person who performed the cremation. A close relative or friend can also perform this ritual.
While immersing, chant the name “Naarayana….Naarayana…. Naarayana”.
Hindu Mourning Period
There is a period of mourning which follows immediately after the cremation which is usually 13 days. After returning home from the cremation the ritual of purification is practiced.
- Everyone who returns home will bathe or shower and change into new clothes. Then the house is often cleaned and tidied.
- Mourning excessively is to be avoided. It is believed the soul can still be conscious of any emotions that are held for the deceased. A happy home environment is encouraged.
- Usually the family will not leave the home for a period of time, however this depends on family traditions and different sects.
- During the first day relatives and friends will bring food to the family. Common tradition follows that the family is not to prepare any meals the day of the cremation.
- A photograph of the deceased may be prominently displayed during mourning.
- Typically a memorial ceremony is held on either the third, fifth, seventh, or ninth day following the death. It is common practice that relatives have a meal of the deceased’s favorite food.
- During the 13 days of mourning those of the immediate family are considered to be in an impure state. They are not to go into any temple or sacred place, touch or go near the family shrine, nor participate in religious rituals other than those of the funeral.
The shraddha ("SHRAHD-hah") ceremony will usually be conducted 10 to 12 days following the death. The Shraddha Ceremony is aimed to help the soul enter the next world after death. This is done to ensure that the souls of their loved ones who have died will enter the next world safely. During a Shraddha ceremony, feasts and gift-giving typically occur. The most common gifts tend to be metal vessels and money.
Animals occupy an important place in Hinduism. They are frequently mentioned in scriptures and enjoy a place of their own as vehicles of many deva's and devi's, as divinities, and also as incarnations or aspects of Lord Vishnu. They embellish and beautify Hindu decorative art and temple architecture, adorning the outer walls and towers of temples as objects of beauty. Pets too are members of the family. It is important that we memorialize our pets in a dignified way.