For many adherents Hinduism is “the oldest religion in the world”. As such the faith, and its respective sects, traditions and local varieties, have gone through many re-births and changes. With this one would expect wide variety of traditions, possibly at conflict with each other, however this is not generally the case. For the most part Hinduism ceremonies can be flexible and at the same time contain quite a large degree of similarity across the differing faiths and regional traditions. For most the concept of purity, cleansing and cleanliness are key themes in a ceremony which has origins in the Indian subcontinent.
What’s different about a Hindu funeral and lead up to the funeral?
Like Buddhists, Hindus also believer in the concept of samsara and like Buddhists Hindus look to escape samsara by freeing themselves from desires and achieving what they call Moksha (a form of enlightenment). In the last moments before death a holy person is usually present and will chant or play chants. The ceremony can include water from the Ganges river (a sacred river in India) being poured into the dying or dead persons mouth and may also include a grass mat for the body to be placed on after death. The cleaning of the body can be very important to some Hindus and in many incidences a “holy bath” called a abhishekam may take place. The posturing, markings and clothing on the body can vary depending on gender, marital status and local traditions.
Where does a Hindu ceremony take place?
Once death has occurred Hindus are encouraged not to touch the body and like with Jewish ceremonies the funeral planning should start immediately. For most sects within Hinduism tradition also stipulates that the funeral should be the next dusk or dawn depending on which one occurs first. After a brief wake the main ceremony is usually held in a crematorium as the majority of Hindus are cremated. Prayers and the position of the body (feet first into the cremation kiln with the feet facing south if possible) is important at this stage.
What normally happens at a Hindu funeral and what do non observers need to know?
In India many still physically carry the body on a stretcher to the crematorium and stop at places of significance on the way. This is uncommon in western countries and only in some cases will this practice be carried out, but with a casket. At the crematorium the chief mourner (usually a male relative) will be the one to set the pyre (usually the body and box/casket holding the body) alight. Flowers and fruit can be brought and while the main mourners will generally wear white it’s advised that others wear modest clothing which avoids bright colours.