Hindu Burial Customs

by Eleanor McKenzie

Like all major religions, Hinduism has specific rituals for burying the dead. These include protocols for care of the body immediately after death and specific tasks assigned to certain family members. Typically, a Hindu funeral and cremation takes place within 24 hours of death when possible, and the family also follows mourning rituals after the funeral.

Preparation

The deceased's body is ritually washed, often by the women of the family. Sacred symbols and ash are applied to the person's body under the supervision of a priest, who also chants mantras during the ritual. Just before the body is taken for cremation, the family places rice in the deceased's mouth -- to nourish the departing soul -- and coins in the hands. The family also lights a lamp in the deceased's room so that the departing soul can find its way out. The body is then covered with flowers, placed on a bier and taken for cremation. During the time before cremation, the family observes specific mourning rituals. For example, no cooking is done in the deceased's house, so relatives bring food for the family. There are some specific rules about the food that a family in mourning should eat; it should be vegetarian and not contain any onion or garlic.

The Cremation

In India, cremations historically took place in the open air, and cremation places were usually situated alongside a river where the family could sprinkle the deceased's ashes. Hindus in the West and in modern India use a crematorium instead and the ashes may be scattered over the ground. Some Hindus living abroad may carry the ashes back to India for immersion in the Ganges or visit sacred shrines to pray for the departed. At a crematorium, the body may be in an open casket, and it is polite to view the body, but not to touch it. It is inappropriate to wear black at a Hindu funeral; white is the color of mourning in Hinduism. Hindus also tend to dress fairly casually for funerals, so it's advisable to dress down rather than dress up.

Funeral Prayers and Songs

A priest, or the deceased's eldest son, usually leads the funeral service. During the cremation, prayers are said for the dead and bhajans are sung -- a Hindu hymn set to music. Traditionally, mourners recite the thousand names of the god Vishnu, a ritual that is thought to bring peace to the mourners and help them in their grief.

Post-Funeral Customs

The most significant ritual observed after the funeral is called "shraddha." This is a feast and prayers for the deceased that also symbolically feeds all the ancestors. The close family has to hold a shraddha every month for a year after the death. The family members who performed the last rites of cleansing the body are also expected to perform "tithi" once a year. Instead of holding a family feast, contemporary Hindus usually observe this custom by either feeding the poor or making a donation, for example to a children's charity.

About the Author

Based in London, Eleanor McKenzie has been writing lifestyle-related books and articles since 1998. Her articles have appeared in the "Palm Beach Times" and she is the author of numerous books published by Hamlyn U.K., including "Healing Reiki" and "Pilates System." She holds a Master of Arts in informational studies from London University.

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