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An Easy Guide to Hindu Funeral Traditions

Hindu funeral

Did you know that in Hinduism, death is viewed not as an end but as a transition from one phase of life to another?

Hindu funeral traditions extend beyond bidding farewell to the departed; they are rich in spiritual beliefs and aimed at bringing solace to both the deceased and those mourning.

Due to the diversity within the religion, it is important to note that funeral rituals and traditions may vary among families.

Hindu beliefs about death

Similar to Buddhism, Hinduism follows the belief of Samsara, the cycle of life, death, and reincarnation until reaching liberation, known as Moksha.

The journey to Moksha is believed to span across numerous lifetimes, with each death leading towards the Hindu God, Brahma. It is also believed that the actions of one's past life influence their next life; a principle known as Karma.

Before death

When death is imminent, it is recommended to contact a Pujari (Hindu priest) and gather family and friends around the dying person to chant mantras or play recorded chants.

Traditionally, the dying person should be transferred to a grass mat on the floor.

In many Hindu households, a vial of water from the Ganges River is usually kept, so, if possible, a small amount of this sacred water will then be put into the mouth of the individual as they near the end of their life.

Many Hindus hold the belief that water from the Ganges River has the power to purify a person's soul from all previous sins.

It is believed that consuming this water before passing away helps one achieve liberation from Samsara. If this preparation is not done before the person's death, it should be promptly completed after the individual passes away.

After death

After the person has passed away, individuals present should refrain from touching the body unnecessarily.

Preparations for the funeral will begin immediately. The funeral is typically scheduled to be held at the earliest opportunity.

Preparing the body

Traditionally, family members and close friends take part in washing the deceased's body.

During the abhisegram (the washing ceremony), the head of the deceased is positioned towards the south, accompanied by a lit oil lamp and a picture of their favourite deity above.

The washing ceremony includes cleansing the body with a blend of ghee, honey, milk, and yogurt while chanting mantras.

Following the washing ceremony, essential oils are applied to the head, using turmeric for women and sandalwood for men.

The big toes are then tied together, and the hands are placed palm-to-palm in a prayer position.

In traditional practices, the deceased is covered in a simple white sheet, although contemporary Hindus may opt to dress the deceased in their finest attire.

The viewing/visitation

In Hindu tradition, cremation is common practice for all Hindus. This is due to the Hindu belief that fire is a sacred passage to the spiritual realm. Babies, children, and saints are an exception to this practice. 

However, before the cremation, a brief viewing is often held. At the viewing, the deceased is presented in a plain casket or coffin and adorned with a garland of lotus flowers around their head or neck.

In Hinduism, the lotus flower holds great significance as it represents purity, prosperity, and eternity making it a fitting symbol for the reincarnation of the deceased soul.

During this time, loved ones come together around the departed to chant mantras. The belief is that these mantras aid the deceased in finding consciousness, energy, and comfort as they transition to their next phase of life.

Before the body is taken for cremation, pinda (rice balls) are placed near the coffin. This act is thought to assist the deceased in their spiritual journey forward and serve as an offering to their ancestors.

The coffin is then respectfully removed feet-first and transported to the cremation site.

The Mukhagni (Cremation ceremony)

Hindu funeral

It is preferred for the Mukhagni (cremation ceremony) to take place within 24 hours of the deceased passing, although this is not always possible.

Historically, cremations have traditionally been conducted on the Ganges River in India, where the family constructs a pyre and lays the body upon it.

In Hindu tradition, the Karta (the eldest male family member) is tasked with lighting the funeral pyre.

The Karta will walk around the body three times, sprinkling holy water on the pyre, and attendees will remain until the body is completely cremated.

Hindu families living outside India often opt for local cremation services, where funeral directors provide assistance with the rituals and traditions associated with Hindu cremation.

The body should enter the crematorium feet-first, preferably with the feet oriented towards the south.

Attendees may chant mantras, followed by the Karta conducting the ceremonial encircling of the body.

Subsequently, the body is prepared for cremation and should also be placed into the cremator feet first.

What to wear to a Hindu funeral

Mourners traditionally wear all white as a mark of respect. In Hindu tradition, white represents purity and serves as a gesture of reverence towards the departed and their family.

Attire usually consists of simple, loose-fitting garments to reflect modesty. Both men and women are expected to wear long sleeves and full trousers, refraining from flashy jewellery or heavy makeup.

Whether you are attending a Hindu funeral, arranging one, or simply seeking knowledge about their religious practices, we hope this guide has helped you to familiarise yourself with Hindu funeral traditions.

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