Within Hinduism there are a number of sects, subsects and regional variations with differing beliefs.
Hindus believe in reincarnation and that life and death are part of a continuous cycle in which the soul is repeatedly reborn according to the law of action and reaction (Samsara). At death, the soul moves to a new physical body, which can be in human or non-human form (an animal or divine being).
The ultimate goal for many Hindus is to become free from desire, thereby attaining moksha, the transcendent state of salvation. Once moksha is attained, the soul will be absorbed into Brahman, the divine force and ultimate reality.
Preparing the Body
After death, the person who has died should only be touched when absolutely necessary, as this is considered to be a symbol of great impurity. Traditionally, family members or close friends wash the body. If this is not possible, the funeral home will attend to this ritual. Since cremation takes place soon after death, the viewing is usually brief.
The person who has died will be displayed in a simple casket, dressed in new white clothes or, if the deceased is a married woman or a young unmarried girl, she will be dressed in red or yellow. A lamp is placed by the head of the body and flowers placed at its feet. Holy basil is sprinkled in the casket and a garland of flowers or a necklace of wooden beads (mala) is draped around the neck. If the person is male, ash wood or sandalwood may be placed on their forehead. Turmeric is used if they are female. Sometimes rice balls (pindas) are placed in the coffin. Mantras and hymns are recited by family and friends.
The Funeral Service
Most adult Hindus (except for Saints) are cremated as it is believed that this will help their soul escape quickly from the body. Traditionally, the cremation would take place by the Ganges River in India. With Hindus now living all over the world, it is accepted that cremation can take place locally. Many crematoria can accommodate the traditions and rituals of a Hindu cremation. The casket is carried into the crematorium feet first, while mourners recite prayers. Mourners stay until the cremation is complete.
Traditionally, the funeral should take place by the next dusk or dawn. This is not always possible outside India, but it should be held as soon as arrangements allow. Funerals are usually conducted by a priest, assisted by the eldest son of the deceased or their closest male relative (the chief mourner). The priest will chant Holy Mantras (scriptures). The chief mourner will light the crematorium pyre and will circle the body, praying for the deceased person’s soul.
After the Funeral
On the day following a Hindu funeral the ashes are immersed in a sacred river. Traditionally, this would be the Ganges. Some choose to repatriate their loved one’s ashes so that this can still take place, however there are many rivers and places throughout the world that are now considered to be acceptable alternatives.
Typically, the bereaved mourn for 12 days and on the 13th day the samskara ends with the ritual of Kriya. During this time, it is customary for families to have a picture of their loved one displayed in the house, adorned with garlands and flowers. Visitors are welcomed and a ritual that helps the soul reincarnate is performed.
On the anniversary of the death, the family hold a memorial event that honours their loved one’s life (Shraddha) and food, such as pindas, is offered to the poor and needy in memory of departed ancestors.
What to Wear to a Hindu Funeral
Mourners should wear white casual clothing to the viewing and service.
Traditionally, bodies are cremated.
Organ donation is acceptable.
Embalming is acceptable (although usually not necessary because the funeral takes place straight away).