Death and burial customs in the Hindu traditions provide a structure for honoring the deceased and offering comfort for the grieving family during the time of loss. As Hinduism upholds the belief of cycles of life through reincarnation, the rituals also prepare the deceased for the life to come.

The Hindu belief of karma affects the tone and practice of mourning rituals. By creating a positive atmosphere, the mourning family and friends pass on the merits of good karma to help prepare their loved one for a positive rebirth and future life.

If possible, many Hindu family members will attempt to be present during the last hours of the life of the loved one. This important event in the natural life cycle marks the beginning of the transition from one life to the next. The family members will provide support, prayers and mantras in hopes to honor and comfort the dying, support and encourage the family, and create good karma in preparation for the coming life cycle.

Once the Death Occurs

Unless the circumstances of the death or the situation of the family prohibit it, the procedures for the final respects and burial take place within twenty-four hours after the death. According to most Hindu texts, the last rites can only be performed by a male family member. When the oldest surviving family members performs the ceremonies, he is called the karta. Specific circumstances and even changing religious and cultural traditions may allow for participation by a female.

Most Hindu traditions will have the body cleansed immediately after death. Often this ceremonial bathing will be performed by the women in the family. Following the bathing, the body is dressed in simple clothing, adorned with marks of the family and community, and the sacred ash across the forehead. The deceased will usually be dressed in new white clothing. If the deceased is a married woman whose husband is still alive, or an unmarried younger female, the clothing will be either a red or yellow dress. A Hindu priest will be invited to the home to lead in holy mantras and prayers. Both the mantras and the prayers will vary by specific religious tradition.

The body will be prepared for cremation by placing it on a bier, or platform. Immediate family members will scatter flowers all over the body. In addition, they will fill the mouth of the deceased with rice, nourishing the departed soul, and place coins in each hand. The body then will be taken to the cremation center.

In some Hindu traditions, burial is an accepted form for the final resting place of the body. In addition, young children, saints and sanyasi, members of a Hindu religious order that are not permitted to own property, may be buried because they are considered pure. The teaching is that burying the body allows the departed soul to more quickly abandon any attachments to the previous life and move ahead to the next incarnation.

When Should It Be Held

A religious ceremony involving either the cremation or burial of the body is traditionally held within twenty-four hours of the death. In India, exceptions to this may be made, given the circumstances of the death or the individual needs of the family. This religious ceremony is simple and respectful, and usually only the immediate family members will participate.

How Should Respects Be Paid

After the death of a loved one, the family enters into a period of mourning. The first sign of respect for the grief is that no cooking will be performed in the family house until the cremation takes place. An old Hindu saying affirms that the fire in the house is not lit until the fire in the cremation pyre has gone out. Some traditions apply this teaching not only to cooking but to heating and lighting as well.

When hearing of the death, it is appropriate to call or visit the bereaved. Sympathy cards or notes can be sent and can provide a meaningful, lasting expression of compassion. Viewings at a funeral home are not a part of the Hindu tradition. The body will be kept at the family home until cremation or burial, which normally occurs within twenty-four hours.

Friends and extended family will visit the bereaved during the period of intense grief which in many Hindu traditions lasts 13 days. Men should dress casually and simply. No head covering would be necessary. Women also should dress casually, but clothing should cover the arms and legs completely. Modest jewelry is permitted for women. The customary color of mourning is white; black attire would not be considered appropriate in most Hindu traditions.

It is also appropriate for gifts of food to be brought after the burial or cremation, though Hindu traditions vary on the exact menu, especially for those involved in performing the last rites. Traditional Hindu food would be vegetarian, prepared without onion or garlic, and would be pure foods.

It is appropriate to bring a gift of flowers to the home when visiting during the mourning period. If the body is still in the home before burial or cremation, the flowers may be placed at the feet of the deceased. If they are given during the thirteen day mourning period, they should be presented to the karta if possible.

The Antyeshti, or Hindu Funeral Rites

The Antyeshti, or final Hindu funeral rites, will vary slightly according to the religious sect or caste of the deceased. The rites have customs that take place around the body, including the covering of the body with flowers, a lamp placed at the head of the body, and incense being burned in the room. During the ceremony, often officiated by a Hindu priest or by the karta, prayers will be offered and hymns sung.

Water will be sprinkled on the body at various points in the service. Extreme care should be given by all mourners to avoid touching the body, an act of blatant disrespect and impurity. The body is then carried on a stretcher to the area of cremation or burial. People accompanying the body will offer the kirtan, mantras chanted in a hymn-like manner. For many Hindus, it is important that the skull be cracked, urging the departed soul to move on. This is sometimes a significant part of the ceremony.

Non-Hindus are often invited to attend the cremation service. They usually are asked to sit rather than participate, though it is becoming more common to allow guests to participate in any part of the ceremony in which they would feel comfortable.

Final Resting State

The funeral rites are very similar within the various traditions of Hinduism. Most Hindus cremate the dead, though some communities allow burial. Those who cremate make exceptions for young children and devout older believers. These individuals are considered pure and are not needing the purification of burning.

It is customary that on the third day after cremation, the karta goes to the cremation service area and collects the ashes of the deceased. The karta would then see that the ashes were disposed of in a significant river. In India, many still travel to the Ganges River to scatter the ashes there. Today many other rivers have been approved by Hindu leaders for such purposes.