Hindu Death Rituals


Hindus believe that humans are born again and again according to their karma, until they finally gain respite – moksha. By living a life of value without sin, it is possible to come closer to moksha, and perhaps be reborn in a higher form in the next life. To drink or bathe in water from the holy river Ganges contributes to rinsing oneself from sin.

When death approaches, the sick person will be lifted out of their bed and laid on the floor with their head towards the north. Relatives gather around the dying person, dip a leaf of sweet basil in water from the Ganges or milk, an place this on the lips of the dying person while they sing holy songs and read holy texts. To enter death with all of ones senses alive is considered ideal, and many Hindus will refrain from taking medication when they feel that their time is up.If available, a special funeral priest is called.

The “chief mourner” leads the rites. He is the eldest son in the case of the father’s death and the youngest son in the case of the mother’s. In some traditions, the eldest son serves for both, or the wife, son-in-law or nearest male relative.

After death,The chief mourner now performs arati, passing an oil lamp over the remains, then offering flowers. The male (or female, depending on the gender of the deceased) relatives carry the body to the back porch, remove the clothes and drape it with a white cloth. (If there is no porch, the body can be sponge bathed and prepared where it is.) Each applies sesame oil to the head, and the body is bathed with water from the nine kumbhas, dressed, placed in a coffin (or on a palanquin) and carried to the homa shelter.The dead person is washed at home, anointed with salve of sandalwood, kum kum powder and vibuthi, and clothed in white. The young children, holding small lighted sticks, encircle the body, singing hymns. The women then walk around the body and offer puffed rice into the mouth to nourish the deceased for the journey ahead. A widow will place her Mangalsutra (wedding pendant) around her husband’s neck, signifying her enduring tie to him. The coffin is then closed. If unable to bring the body home, the family arranges to clean and dress it at the mortuary rather than leave these duties to strangers. The ritual homa fire can be made at home or kindled at the crematorium.

The body is laid in a coffin and covered with flowers before it is driven to the crematorium. In north Indian tradition, three bowls of barley flour are now prepared. The first bowl is placed on the head of the deceased before being carried into the crematorium. The second is placed on the chest during the procession from the hearse. The third is placed on the stomach after arriving in the crematorium. In the crematorium, a small candle or oil lamp (diwali lamp) is lit, which the main mourner holds in his hand while carrying a container of water on his shoulder. He circles the dead person three times, and a hole is made in the container each time he goes around.The coffin is then moved to the cremation room (Shamshan ghat). Only men go to the cremation site, led by the chief mourner. Two pots are carried: the clay kumbha and another containing burning embers from the homa. The body is carried three times counterclockwise around the pyre, then placed upon it. All circumambulating, and some arati, in the rites is counterclockwise. If a coffin is used, the cover is now removed. The men offer puffed rice as the women did earlier, cover the body with wood and offer incense and ghee. With the clay pot on his left shoulder, the chief mourner circles the pyre while holding a fire brand behind his back. At each turn around the pyre, a relative knocks a hole in the pot with a knife, letting water out, signifying life’s leaving its vessel. At the end of three turns, the chief mourner drops the pot. Then, without turning to face the body, he lights the pyre and leaves the cremation grounds. The others follow. At a gas-fueled crematorium, sacred wood and ghee are placed inside the coffin with the body. Where permitted, the body is carried around the chamber, and a small fire is lit in the coffin before it is consigned to the flames. The cremation switch then is engaged by the chief mourner.

Returning home, all bathe and share in cleaning the house. A lamp and water pot are set where the body lay in state. The water is changed daily, and pictures remain turned to the wall. The shrine room is closed, with white cloth draping all icons. During these days of ritual impurity, family and close relatives do not visit others homes, though neighbors and relatives bring daily meals to relieve the burdens during mourning. Neither do they attend festivals and temples, visit swamis, nor take part in marriage arrangements. Some observe this period up to one year.

About 12 hours after cremation, family men return to collect the remains. Water is sprinkled on the ash; the remains are collected on a large tray. At crematoriums the family can arrange to personally gather the remains: ashes and small pieces of white bone called “flowers.” In crematoriums these are ground to dust, and arrangements must be made to preserve them. Ashes are carried or sent to India for deposition in the Ganges or placed them in an auspicious river or the ocean, along with garlands and flowers.

The death ritual lasts 12 days. During this period, the mourners are ritually unclean. They do not go to the temple, and must cover all religious pictures and figures that they have in the house. Family members sleep on the floor, and eat only vegetarian food. Every morning for 11 days, the eldest son – as main mourner – receives tutelage in the ritual from the priest. Sometimes all the male members may shave their heads as a mark of respect.On the twelfth day, possessions of the eldest son are given to charity.

Each month during the first year after the death, a pinda rice-ball and bowl of water are offered in memory of the dead person. A widow will erase her marriage mark (sindoor) and wear white clothes for the first year after her husband’s death. Sons will hold a memorial service each year on the day of their father’s death as long as they are alive.

At the yearly anniversary of the death (according to the moon calendar), a priest conducts the shradha rites in the home, offering pinda to the ancestors. This ceremony is done yearly as long as the sons of the deceased are alive (or for a specified period). It is now common in India to observe shradha for ancestors just prior to the yearly Navaratri festival. This time is also appropriate for cases where the day of death is unknown.