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Understanding Hindu Funerals: Traditions & Etiquette

Hinduism is not only the third largest religion in the world but also the third-largest religious group in Britain. In 2011, more than 800,000 Hindus of the estimated one billion followers worldwide lived in the UK. They practice their religion in over 160 Hindu temples across the country. Just like Buddhists, Hindus believe in karma and reincarnation – yet, despite some common ground, they observe quite different rites and approach death in a unique manner. If you have been invited to a funeral or are simply curious how different cultures and religions deal with death and dying, this blog post will help you understand the most fundamental traditions and etiquette of Hindu funerals. Please keep in mind that Hinduism is a pluralistic faith with many sects and denominations with a vast number of rituals and traditions, therefore this article is kept very general.

Hindu beliefs about Death

Hindus believe that all living beings have an eternal soul of divine nature. That means that God is within everyone and everything. At the same time, God transcends everyone and everything. As the soul is immortal the body is only a temporary home to it and gets left behind when a person dies. Like Buddhists, Hindus believe in samsara – the cycle of birth and death – and that the soul reincarnates into a different physical body. Reincarnation, a soul’s future fate, is influenced by one’s karma. Karma is the concept of every action and thought has consequences. The word itself means “action”. It is understood as an energy we create through actions, thoughts, deeds, and words that either uplift or degrade a soul. From a Hindu perspective, the goal in life is to become aware of one’s divine essence, therefore more loving and selfless, and break the cycle of samsara by attaining moksha (in Buddhism this would be enlightenment or Nirvana) – a spiritual existence, a oneness with Brahman, the ultimate reality, a direct experience of God.

Hindu Funeral Preparation

All funeral traditions and rituals have one main goal: To support a smooth, easy and successful transition of the soul from its’ current body into the next physical form. If anyhow possible, Hindus prefer to die at home, surrounded by their family and loved ones. The state of mind and consciousness of the dying person is believed to be important for the soul’s journey that lies ahead. It is therefore custom that family and loved ones create a spiritual atmosphere and chant a chosen mantra with or for the dying person. They may also read from scripture or sing hymns and prayers. In some Hindu sects, the dying person will be placed on a grass mat on the floor or have a few spoons of sacred water from the Ganges poured into their mouth. Again, both rituals are meant to support and ease the transition of the soul.

Once a person has died, the family washes the body with purified water or, more traditionally, a mixture of milk, honey, ghee and yoghurt. A woman who dies before her husband will be wrapped in a red cloth, men and widows get wrapped in a white cloth. They may be dressed in clean clothes underneath. The deceased’s thumbs, as well as big toes, get tied together. Alternatively, his or her hands may be folded in a prayer position.

The preparation of the body starts immediately after death because it is custom for the Hindu funeral to take place within 24 (if possible) or 48 hours at the latest. Until then, the body of the deceased stays at home. Even though it’s not prohibited, Hindus consider embalming an unnecessary funeral ritual due to the very short time frame between the death and the funeral. They do, however, rub essential oils on the forehead of the person who died – sandalwood for men, turmeric for women – to purify the body.

A Hindu funeral is usually a cremation. Only babies, young children, and saints are buried. Hindus believe that the attachments we form during a lifetime can lead to the soul lingering after death. The best way to cut all ties with the body that’s being left behind and free the soul is by returning it to the Earth through cremation.

Attending a Hindu Funeral

A Hindu funeral is a solemn, simple and respectful affair, usually held at home and called a wake. It is attended by family and loved ones; non-Hindus are welcome as well. A Hindu priest officiates the funeral and leads the mourners in the various chants, mantras, prayers and rituals. Please keep in mind that Hindu funeral traditions vary from sect to sect and from family to family and may depend on the location as well.

What to Expect at a Hindu Funeral

When invited to a Hindu funeral you can expect to find the deceased displayed in a simple coffin, often with a necklace of wooden beads or a flower garland around their neck. Sometimes, there’s holy basil placed in the casket. As a guest, you should view but not touch the body, offer the family your condolences and take a seat. The service includes mantras, hymns, prayers and sometimes a fire ritual. Non-Hindus are welcome to participate in any rituals and chanting as far as they are comfortable or sit quietly. A Hindu funeral usually doesn’t last longer than 30 minutes but that can depend on the family’s wishes. It is not appropriate to take any photos or videos.

Hindu Funeral Traditions

A very common tradition at Hindu funerals is the placing of rice balls, so-called pinda, near the deceased one’s head. These are meant for the spirits of other dead relatives who gather to guide the recently departed soul. As they haven’t had physical bodies in a while it doesn’t take much food to appease them. In certain sects, rice is placed inside the deceased one’s mouth as well. Close family members often scatter flower petals over the body. And in some traditions, a lamp gets placed near the deceased one’s head.

The wake is followed by the cremation service that is called mukhagni. Traditionally, it is only attended by men, with the oldest son or male relative, the “karta” accompanying the casket. It is an important Hindu funeral custom to carry it so that the feet of the person who died enter the crematorium first. The mourners recite prayers while circling the casket. They are present for the cremation. At modern Hindu funerals, women may be allowed to attend the mukhagni. Please make sure to check with the family or funeral director rather than making assumptions.

Ideally, the ashes get scattered into the river Ganges. It is considered sacred among Hindus. Some companies offer to transport the ashes to India to scatter them on the family’s behalf. If that is too expensive or not possible, the ashes may be scattered in another body of water or at a place that held significance to the person who died.

What to Wear: Dress Code & Colours

It is not appropriate to wear black to a Hindu funeral. Instead, women, as well as men, should dress in white clothes. No one is expected to wear a head-covering.

Men’s Funeral Dress & Colour Code

Men should wear simple and conservative white clothes – either traditional Hindu attire or slacks and a dress shirt. More casual clothes can be acceptable as well.

Women’s Funeral Dress & Colour Code

Women should make sure to cover their arms and knees. Jewellery is not prohibited but should be very modest. Open-toe shoes are acceptable. None of the clothes or accessories should be flashy or fancy. A Hindu funeral is not an occasion to show off your wealth or the latest fashion.

Sending Gifts & Flowers

Flowers don’t play a major role at Hindu funerals but neither are they prohibited. If you wish to send flowers, you should do so beforehand. Do not bring them to the service yourself.

Please don’t bring gifts or food to a Hindu funeral either. It is, however, custom to bring fruit to the bereaved family’s home when paying them a visit during the mourning period after the funeral service.

Post Funeral traditions

After the cremation, family and loved ones head home, shower and put on fresh clothes. The immediate family enters a mourning period that lasts between 10 and 13 days during which the members stay at home. They are not allowed in the temple or other sacred places. A photograph of the person who died may be displayed and incense lit to purify the home.

Roughly ten to 13 days after the funeral, another ceremony called preta-karma will be held at the family’s home. It is one of the Hindu death rituals and meant to help guide the soul towards reincarnation.

On the first anniversary of the death, the family holds a memorial service called Shraddha. Just like the funeral service, it involves readings from scripture, the chanting of mantras as well as prayers. Everybody who knew the person who died is welcome. This ceremony is usually conducted by a priest and pays tribute to the deceased one’s ancestors. Shraddha involves food and gift-giving.

Common questions about Hindu Funerals

Is there a mourning period for Hindus?

The mourning period for Hindus is not as strict or regulated as for example the Jewish customs of sitting Shiva and observing Shloshim. It starts immediately after the funeral and lasts for 10 to 13 days and is meant to provide the family with enough time and privacy to freely express their grief at home – without any occupational or societal commitments. After that, it is up to the individual when they feel ready to go back to work and participate in the day-to-day life of their wider community again. Usually, this happens within one to three weeks.

What are traditional Hindu funerals like?

Hindu funerals usually consist of a comparatively short service at the family home and cremation. The funeral is held within 24 hours of the death. They are solemn and respectful affairs that are meant to help and support a smooth and successful transition of the soul into the next physical existence.

What to bring to a Hindu funeral?

It is not customary to bring flowers or gifts to the funeral. Therefore, if you are invited to a Hindu funeral, just bring yourself. Family and loved ones will appreciate you showing up for and with them during this difficult time.