Antyeshti: Funeral Rites

The coffin leaves for the crematorium during a funeral ceremony in Wembley.

After marriage, most Hindus spend the rest of their lives as householders. After children have left home, there is generally a period of gradual retirement from active life and an increased dedication to spiritual practice. This corresponds to the third stage of life (vanaprastha), which these days is rarely adopted formally and certainly followed less rigorously. A few men still take sannyasa and, leaving home, prepare for inevitable death. In one sense, the whole of life, with its various stages and samskaras, is a preparation for death and beyond.

The funeral rites are almost universally performed and follow similar patterns. Most Hindus cremate their dead.The exceptions are small children and saints, whose bodies are considered pure, and are therefore buried. The rationale is that burning enables the departed soul to abandon attachment for its previous body and move swiftly forward to the next chapter of life. Funeral ceremonies should therefore be performed as soon as possible – by dusk or by dawn, whichever occurs first. Therefore, in India a funeral takes place within hours of death. Regulations elsewhere mean that it may take much longer.

In South India, an annual shraddha ceremony, in which pinda (rice balls) are offered to God and to the departed soul.

There is also a period of mourning, extending to about thirteen days after the funeral (varying according to varna and other considerations). During this time, the family is considered impure. They will not attend religious functions nor eat certain foods (e.g. sweets). It is a period for giving vent to one’s grief, so that one can live unhindered by unreleased emotions. Significantly, though, these rites are more for the benefit of the deceased than for the bereaved. They are essential to ensure the smooth passage of the soul to a better level of existence. Most essential is the shraddha ceremony performed on the first anniversary of death. Prasad, often balls of cooked rice, are offered to God and in turn to the departed soul.

The Ceremony

The body is washed by relatives, dressed in fresh cloth, and bedecked with flowers. A few drops of Ganges water are placed in the mouth. The corpse is then carried on a stretcher to the cremation grounds accompanied by kirtan, chanting mantras such as “Ram Nam Satya Hai” (the name of Rama is truth).The eldest son lights the funeral pyre. For renunciates, it is considered important that the skull is cracked, and this is sometimes part of the ritual, apparently urging the departed soul to move on. Towards the end of the ceremony a priest or relative recites appropriate verses from scripture.

Usually three days later, the eldest son will collect the ashes and place them in the Ganges, or another sacred river. In the UK, relatives may travel to India for this purpose, though some are now using the Thames.

Scriptural Passages

“As a person puts on new garments, giving up old ones, the soul similarly accepts new material bodies, giving up the old and useless ones.”

Bhagavad-gita 2.22