Religious Studies

Hinduism: death rites

The ways in which religious people deal with death and the funeral rites they carry out are usually very closely linked with their beliefs about life after death.

Funeral rites

Funeral rites are very important for two reasons:

  • They show respect for the dead and, in some religions, include various ceremonies which people believe are necessary to ensure that people go on to whatever their next life will be.
  • Perhaps more importantly, they give the relatives and friends of the deceased time to mourn and show their grief in a certain way. People often say that showing their grief formally helps them to get over their loss.

Hindu funeral rites

Most Hindus are cremated [Cremation: Reducing a corpse by burning. ] as it is believed that this will help their soul to escape quickly from the body.

The exact details of the funeral ceremonies, which form the last of the samskaras (antyeshti samskara, final reincarnation), vary according to tradition and place. Funerals are usually conducted by a priest and by the eldest son of the deceased.

Various rituals may take place around the dead body:

  • a lamp is placed by the head of the body
  • prayers and hymns are sung
  • pindas (rice balls) are placed in the coffin
  • water is sprinkled on the body
  • a mala (necklace of wooden beads) may be put around the dead person’s neck as may garlands of flowers

How the cremation takes place depends on where this happens.

In the United Kingdom the coffin will be closed and taken to a crematorium.

A hindu funeral

A hindu funeral on the River Ganges

In India people hope to have their funeral at the burning ghats on the shores of the sacred river Ganga (Ganges). Here the body is placed on a large pile of wood, then the eldest son says the appropriate Vedic prayers and lights the fire. Incense and ghee (cooked and clarified butter) are poured into the flames.

Prayers are said for the dead person:

O Supreme light, lead us from untruth to truth, from darkness to light and from death to immortality.

Afterwards the ashes of the deceased are sprinkled on water. Many people take the ashes to India to put on the waters of the Ganga; others may take them to the sea near to where they live.

After the funeral the widow or widower will wear white as a sign of mourning. The close family may mourn for twelve days.

On the thirteenth day the samskara [Samskaras: Sacraments designed to initiate a new stage of life. There is usually a total of 16 such rites of passage (though many Hindus do not practice them all). ] (reincarnation) ends with the ritual of Kriya. During this, riceballs and milk are offered to the deceased to show the gratitude of the family for the life of that person. After this, the mourners can continue with their normal lives. It is not wrong to mourn for too long, as Hindus believe that each death brings the atman [Atman: Self. The real self, the soul. ] nearer to moksha [Moksha: Ultimate liberation from the process of transmigration, the continuous cycle of birth and death. ].

Every year after the death Shraddha takes place. At this ceremony food such as pindas is offered to the poor and needy in memory of departed ancestors.

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