Funeral Customs: Hindu Funerals

Posted by Coakley Hilton on Mon, Jul 16, 2012

hindu funeral

Hindu funeral rites, also referred to as Antim Sanskar, are an important sacrament of Hindu society. There is wide inconsistency in theory and practice, and the procedures differ from place to place. Further, these rites also differ depending on the caste, jāti, social group, and the status of the deceased person. 

Hindu funeral rites may generally be divided into four stages:

  • The rituals and rites to be performed when the person is believed to be on the death bed.
  • Rites which accompany the disposal of the dead body.
  • Rites which enable the soul of the dead to transit successfully from the stage of a ghost (preta) to the realm of the ancestors, the Pitrs.
  • Rites performed in honor of the Pitrs.

Immediately after the death, family members close the mouth and eyes of the deceased, and put the arms straight. An oil lamp is lit and placed near the body which is kept burning continuously for the first three days following death. In Hinduism, the dead body is considered to be symbol of great impurity hence minimal physical contact is maintained. Most often the body is bathed by purified water, and then dressed in new clothes. Sacred ash is applied on the forehead of the deceased if they are worshippers of Lord Shiva, otherwise sandalwood paste is applied to the forehead, if the dead was a worshipper for Lord Vishnu. Further, a few drops of the holy Ganges water may be put into the mouth of the deceased so that the soul may attain liberation, also a few leaves of the holy basil are placed on the right side of the dead body.

The body then may be adorned with jewels, and placed lying on a stretcher, with the feet pointing towards the south or kept in a sitting position. The stretcher is adorned with different flowers including roses, jasmine, and marigolds, and the body is almost completely covered with the flowers. Thereafter, the close relatives of the deceased person carry the stretcher on their shoulders to the cremation ground. 

The cremation ground is called Shmashana and traditionally it is located near a river, if not on the river bank itself. There, a pyre is prepared, on which the corpse is laid with its feet facing southwards, so that the deceased can walk in the direction of the dead. The jewels, if any, are removed. Thereafter, the chief mourner walks around the pyre three times keeping the body to his left. While walking he sprinkles water and sometimes ghee onto the pyre from a vessel. He then sets the pyre alight with a torch of flame. 

The beginning of the cremation heralds the start of the traditional mourning period, which usually ends on the morning of the 13th day after death. When the fire consumes the body, which may take a few hours, the mourners return home. During this mourning period the family of the dead are bound by many rules and regulations of ritual impurity. Immediately after the cremation the entire family is expected to have a bath. One or two days after the funeral, the chief mourner returns to the cremation ground to collect the mortal remains and put them in an urn. These remains are then immersed in a river.

The preta-karma is an important aspect of Hindu funeral rites, and its objective is to facilitate the migration of the soul of the dead person from the status of a preta (ghost or spirit) to the abode of the ancestors (Pitrs). It is believed that if this stage of funeral rites is not performed or performed incorrectly, the spirit of the dead person shall become a ghost (bhuta). The rites generally last for ten or eleven days, at the end of which the preta is believed to join the abode of the ancestors. Thereafter, they are worshipped during future ceremonies.

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