In the Hindu religion, death is viewed as part of the natural cycle of life. The death of the biological body is not viewed as final because the soul is reincarnated and returns to earth in a new body. This is a cycle thought to repeat itself until the soul finally reaches Nirvana and is reflected in the Hindu death rituals traditionally performed by a male family member or, in the West, by a priest.
Traditional Hindu Death Rituals
In India, death rituals have ancient origins and must be performed correctly to ensure the soul of the dead person will be able to get its new body. The funeral is considered a sacrament and these rituals, along with the funeral, are to be held before the sun goes down on the day a person dies. Hindus believe that if these rites aren't performed when and how they should be, it can delay the arrival of the soul to its destination.
Dying in the Home
Traditionally, the Hindu die at home with his or her head facing east. When death draws near, the family is notified and a lamp is lit. If conscious, he is reminded to dwell on his mantra while his family members sing, pray, or read from the scripture. If the person is unconscious when he passes, a family member whispers the person's mantra in his right ear. The body is laid in the entryway of the home with the head toward the south, signifying a return to Mother Earth.
Time of Grief
During the time of grief, no cooking is allowed in the house. Friends bring food according to specific dietary guidelines, including vegetarian dishes made without onion or garlic, which are considered "pure" foods.
Family members gather around the body to pray, but avoid touching the body, which is considered "polluting." The chief mourner passes an oil lamp over the body and a ceremonial cleansing (bath) is performed. The body is then traditionally wrapped in white. If a married woman precedes her husband in death, however, she is dressed in red bridal clothes. Once the body is cleansed, it is taken to be cremated. Those who accompany the body chant promises that God will take care of the person.
Cremation has become more commonplace in Western culture, but Hindus cremate their dead because it signifies the releasing of the soul. Some believe the soul clings to the body for as long as possible and that cremation actually releases the soul. The eldest son or chief mourner sets the pyre on fire as he walks about the body in a counterclockwise fashion. This represents the idea that things are backwards at the time of death.
When the body is almost completely burned, the chief mourner cracks the skull with a bamboo stick to release the soul. This rite is called kapälakriyä.
Lighting a Lamp
A lamp is lit to help guide the departed soul on its way. Water is also provided as nourishment. During this time, family members do not visit the homes of others, but friends do bring meals. This is to be a time of joy because prolonged grieving can delay the soul's transition to the heaven worlds.
Collection of Bones and Ashes
The ashes of the dead, along with small pieces of bone called "flowers," are collected the following day (about 12 hours after cremation). These cremated remains are preferably scattered in a river along with flowers and garlands, or scattered over the earth.
Yearly Anniversary of Death
Each year, a priest performs shraddha rites in the home to mark the anniversary of the person's passing. This is observed for a specified amount of time or, in some cultures, is a continual observance as long as the sons of the deceased are still living.
Western Hindu Rituals
In the West, the Hindu family calls a funeral home and a priest who will perform the last rites. Preparing for the funeral often takes days. The Hindu priest performs the last rites that may include havan (for the release of the soul) and a eulogy. Family and friends pay their last respects with flower petals before the body is brought to the crematorium. The day concludes with a meal served to family and friends and gifts that are given to the priest. The ashes of the deceased may be carried to India and scattered into the sacred Ganges river, but for those who are unable to make that journey, ashes may be scattered in the ocean.