The Hindu Funeral

Hinduism, generally regarded as the world’s oldest organized religion, claims about 837 million members worldwide. It is the dominant religion in India and Nepal, and more than one million Hindus live in the United States.

The Hindu faith holds that atman, the individual soul, has no beginning and no end and may, after the body dies, pass into another incarnation. Death is a sad occasion, but Hindu priests emphasize the journey ahead for the departed soul, and the funeral serves as a celebration as well as a remembrance.

Family members will pray around the body as soon as possible after death. People will avoid touching the corpse as it is considered polluting.

Funerals are usually held within 24 hours of the death. In the U.S., the body is not kept at home as in India but must be taken immediately to a funeral home, where it is washed, sanitized and dressed in white, traditionally Indian clothing. Funeral services somewhat reflect the Judeo-Christian tradition, with mourners observing rituals that in India are conducted in private.

Most Hindus choose cremation, which is intended to liberate the soul of the deceased for its ascent to heaven. Some communities, however, practice burial instead, and infants and children are always buried rather than cremated.

After the funeral service, the body may be transported to the home for a short ceremony before going to the crematorium. On the way, the funeral procession may pass places of significance to the deceased, such as a building or street. Prayers are said along the route and at the entrance to the crematorium.

A short service also takes place at the crematorium, where a last food offering is symbolically made to the deceased before the body is cremated. The family may or may not witness the cremation.

After the cremation, the family may have a meal and offer prayers in their home. This is the beginning of the 13-day mourning period when friends will visit and offer their condolences. The length of mourning period may vary depending on the deceased’s caste.

In India, the cremation ceremony occurs ten days after death for members of the Brahmin caste and 30 days after death for members of other castes. Cremation is performed at home, with the oldest male family member presiding and lighting the funeral pyre.

Some Indian-Americans return to India to immerse the ashes of their loved one in the Ganges.

Etiquette

Flowers may be sent, although this is not traditional. Mourners typically wear white, but visitors are expected simply to wear subdued colors.

Guests leave the funeral service as soon as the cremation begins and then gather with the family for a meal and prayers. Friends may also visit the family to offer comfort during the 13-day mourning period. It is traditional for visitors to bring gifts of fruit to the grieving family.

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