A funeral is a sad time but also an important one. It gives loved ones the opportunity to say farewell to the deceased and honour them with funeral flowers and tributes. In the Hindu culture, the funeral typically follows a very traditional path, with certain customs, rituals, and beliefs being observed by all involved.
Due to the multicultural nature of our world today you may find yourself taking part in a Hindu funeral and want to know more about what to expect. And the first thing to know is that non-Hindus are very welcome at a Hindu funeral and are encouraged to send funeral flowers, and take part in the rituals, just as Hindus would do. Below we discuss some of the key customs of this process.
A Hindu funeral is normally conducted in the deceased’s home. The ceremony will usually be conducted by a Hindu priest, with the eldest son of the deceased (where applicable). The actual ceremony will involve placing garlands of flowers around the deceased’s neck, placing a lamp by the body, singing hymns and reading prayers, and placing rice balls in the coffin. Water is also sprinkled over the body as a symbol of purification.
Following the funeral ceremony and wake, the body is usually cremated - ideally within 24 hours of death. The eldest male of the family will accompany the body to the crematorium.
One of the primary beliefs of Hindu cultures is that while the body may be dead, the soul is not. And it is commonly believed that cremation is the quickest way to help the soul escape from the body. This is why almost all Hindus are cremated. Another core belief is that of reincarnation: the Hindu culture believes that after someone dies they will be reborn in another form. And that this form will be influenced by their actions when they were alive. This concept is known as Karma. A celebration is held on the thirteenth day after a death to celebrate the reincarnation of a person. A feast is held and it marks the end of a soul’s journey through the underworld.
There are a number of customs observed during a Hindu funeral. One of the main ones is the giving of flowers. Flowers are a very important part of a Hindu funeral and mourners are encouraged to send funeral tributes to the home of the deceased prior to the wake. A Hindu family may expect to have numerous funeral flowers delivered during this time.
Another important custom is that of the open casket. A Hindu’s body will normally be displayed in an open casket during the funeral ceremony for mourners to pay their respects. After the cleansing of the body and the addition of a garland to the neck, no one is permitted to touch the body, as this would lead to impurity.
Customarily the deceased and mourners will wear white for the wake, as a symbol of purity. Black clothing is forbidden during a Hindu funeral and mourners should wear casual clothes as a mark of respect.
The rituals of a Hindu funeral are very carefully observed and carried out. These include the cleansing of the body after death. During this time the family will wash the body whilst saying prayers or singing hymns and the deceased’s body should be facing south.
Once cleansed, the big toes will be bound together and the hands will be bound in a prayer pose. The body will then be covered by a white sheet. If a married woman dies before her husband, she will be covered by a red sheet.
Before the funeral and wake, it is customary for mourners to send an OM tribute to show their affection and respect.
During the funeral, the family will gather around the body to say mantras and prayers to encourage the soul of the deceased to pass through the ghost world and meets its ancestors.
In India, the cremation of a body is a ritual in itself, with many Hindus choosing to be cremated and have the ashes spread in the Ganges River. However, Hindus living outside India will normally be cremated at a crematorium and have their ashes spread near a source of water.
Following a cremation, the family and friends will bathe and change clothes, and the home where the deceased lay may be purified with incense by a priest.
On the anniversary of the death, the family will gather together and mark the event; an elaborate meal will normally be served.