Hindu funeral rites
A Hindu funeral takes place as swiftly as possible – according to custom it should have taken place by the next dusk or dawn, whichever occurs first.
In the UK this is not always possible, but ideally no more than 24 hours should pass between death and the funeral unless the deceased died in suspicious circumstances and the body must legally undergo post-mortem. Embalming can take place if necessary but it is not standard practice.
Before the funeral service, relatives wash the body in milk, yoghurt, honey and ghee and then anoint it with spices. Turmeric is placed on the forehead of the deceased if she is a woman and sandalwood if he is a man.
The body’s hands are set in a position of prayer and they will be dressed in their best clothes – which may be traditional Indian clothes or modern ones – or wrapped in a white shroud, depending on the branch of Hinduism they belonged to in life.
What happens at a Hindu funeral (UK)?
Hindu funerals take place in the deceased’s own home, or that of their close family members. At the funeral the casket will be open and guests are expected to view it but not to touch it.
The service, which is led by a Hindu priest and the elders of the family, consists of chanting and prayers. Non-Hindus are welcome to join in but this is not mandatory. Traditionally there are no eulogies read for the deceased; however modern Hindu funerals in the UK are beginning to adopt the western tradition of eulogising.
Hindus always cremate their dead if possible, because they believe that it is the fastest way to free the soul from the tethers of its old body.
What happens at a Hindu cremation (UK)?
After the service the body will be taken for cremation. This is something that must be witnessed by family members and perhaps a few closest friends. It is unlikely that any non-Hindus will be invited to witness this part of the ceremony, especially due to the restrictive laws surrounding cremation and who may be present to witness it in the UK.
The position of the body at this time is very important – it must go through every doorway (leaving the house, entering the crematorium and entering the incinerator) feet first. Ideally the feet point south at this final stage.
According to Hindu tradition, the eldest son in the family must light the funeral pyre. As open funeral pyres are illegal in the UK, the modern equivalent is for him to press the button that starts the flames.
The deceased’s close family, who must witness the cremation, will pray as the eldest son circles the body, either prior to putting it in the incinerator or circling the incinerator itself.
Once the cremation is over, the family take the ashes and scatter them. Strict Hindu tradition states that they must be scattered into the Ganges and accordingly many Hindus travel to India with urns to lay them to rest in the holy river.
Although the Ganges is preferable to many, it is acceptable to scatter ashes into any river that flows to the sea. In the UK many rivers have been designated legal scattering places for Hindus, including the Thames, the Wye and the Soar.
Hindu funeral what to wear?
It is customary for guests to wear all white at Hindu funerals. The colour represents the purity of the deceased’s soul and their reincarnation, and for this reason black is inappropriate.
Casual, loose clothes to convey humility are best. Men and women should wear long sleeves and full trousers without any eye catching jewellery or bold makeup.
Wear shoes that you can take off easily, as you may be asked to remove them when entering the funeral service.
Hindu funeral flowers
Some followers of Hinduism garland the heads or necks of their dead in lotus flowers before cremation. This is due to the symbolism of the lotus in Hinduism – despite growing from mud and water, it becomes a beautiful flower. Lotus flowers therefore represent triumph over pain and adversity, purity and the ability to transgress earthly sins – a fitting symbol for the reincarnation of the deceased.
Although family members will often cover the coffin of the deceased in flowers, leaves and herbs, it is not traditional for guests to bring flowers as gifts to a Hindu funeral. The gesture is thought to complicate funeral rituals.
Should you wish to express your sympathy with a gift of flowers, send them to the family of the deceased and don’t bring them to the funeral. In India gifts of lotus flowers or yellow and white chrysanthemums, the flower of mourning throughout Asia, are most fitting.
It is common for the deceased’s family to request that guests make donations to charity (alms) or to religious organisations instead of bringing them gifts of flowers. This is considered a holy gesture, demonstrating kindness, selflessness and consideration for others even in death.
Regardless of this, however, many Hindus choose to lay a single garland before a photograph of their deceased loved one following the funeral.
Hindu funerals explained: what happens afterwards
Ten days after the funeral service, a smaller ceremony is held at home to free the soul, allowing it to rise to a higher state of being. This is a more joyful and celebrative affair than the funeral and represents closure for the family.
Visitors to this memorial ceremony bring gifts – usually baskets of fruit for the family. Hampers containing nuts, cakes and other desserts are also welcome. Guests may also bring a cooked meal for the family, either at the memorial service or around this period, to relieve them of the burden of cooking during their time of grief.
If you are bringing food to show your respect to the deceased’s family, make sure that it is vegetarian and cooked without onion or garlic, as these foods (along with animal products and alcohol) are considered worldly pleasures that cause disordered sensory states. This runs counter to the Hindu belief in detachment from the physical.