Hindu Death Rites
Hindus generally observe many rites throughout their lives. However in this age of rapid changes, many have forgotten some of the rites. Many are also at a loss when confronted with a situation which necessitates the observance of some of these rites. The last rites performed for the departed souls of those near and dear to us is the most important rite that has to be performed for the peaceful transmigration of the soul to reach the lotus feet of the Lord. Many of us are not aware of or do not know what has to be done when a sudden death takes place in the family. This article has been prepared by us to help Hindus to observe some basic rites that has to be performed for the departed soul. This article is the forerunner to many more such articles which the Board hopes to publish in the future. We have attempted to explain the way the rites are performed and the reasons for doing so. We recognize that some aspects of the rites may vary from the practices of the sub- groups of the Hindu community. Elders and those familiar with the rites have been consulted, and we have endeavored, as much as possible, to reflect their views.
When a person is close to death, the family member should inform the family Poojari (Maharaj / Purohit) or find and appoint the purohit who will direct and conduct the final rites. Please view the list of Maharaj and temples in ICS our website (Indiancremationnfp.org) or its companion book.
– The purohit will begin chanting Vishnusahasranama shoshtram or continuously play a CD of the same within hearing distance of the dying person. If Vishnu Sahasranama shoshtra cannot be recited than any other text or name of God should be recited or played. Other types of prayers or bhajans can also be sung without emotion. Most of the Hospices and Hospitals and Nursing Homes will accommodate this practice in some way. Do not hesitate to discuss this with a Palliative care nurse or Nursing supervisor.
– A few spoons of Ganges water/Tulsi water are dropped in the mouth the mouth either at time or just after death.
– A sesame oil lamp with one wick and single agarbatti are kept near the corpse. A photograph of deceased and the families favorite deity may also be placed at the head side. Outside the house, a fire should be prepared in an earthen pot using a few pieces of wood, charcoal, and camphor.
Action required soon after death: Outside the home
When a person is pronounced dead, the following formalities have to be attended to. Obtain and follow the standard procedure in obtaining the death certificate from the appropriate authorities. The funeral director may assist you in this matter.
Items required for Cremation
- Two Mud pots (one big, one small), with covers
- One kilogram (or 2.2 pounds) of rice
- Betel leaf and nut
- Tulsi leaves, flowers, or garland
- Few packets of camphor, agarbathi (udubathi) and an oil lamp if one is not available at home
- Few pieces of dry wood, charcoal, and a match box
- One sandal wood splinter, if available
- If deceased is a female non-widow: Turmeric, kumkumam
- If deceased is a male: sandalwood paste
- 2.5 meters of white cloth
- One packet of milk, if deceased is a child
- $10 worth of coins
- Ganges water
- Small wood splinters for torches (pandham)
- Abishegam materials for bathing (depending on family custom)
- One tin of ghee for torch
- Any other items depending on the advice of the elders in the family, group, or community. Bear in mind that this is not the time to argue with anyone about the relevance or irrelevance of things; proceed calmly and patiently.
Things to be done (at home) soon after death
- Pour a few spoons of Ganges water/Tulsi water into the mouth either at the time of death or soon after a person is dead.
- Place the body on a mat, head facing south. Repeat ‘Narayana’ or ‘Govinda’ or ‘Nama Sivaya’ three times in the right ear of the deceased; this should be done by the son or an elder of the family.
- Make sure that the mouth and eyes are closed. Tie the toes with a piece of string bringing the two legs together. Place the hands with the two thumbs tied together on the chest as if he or she is doing a narnaskar.
- lf Tulsi is available; place a few of them below the head next to the right ear. Cover the body up to the neck with a white cloth (for males and widows.) If deceased is female (married or unmarried), an orange, yellow, or red cloth is used..
- An oil lamp (with one wick only) and an agarbathi are lit and kept near the head. A photograph of deceased family’s favorite deity may be placed at the head side. Outside the house prepare a fire in an earthen pot using a few pieces of wood, charcoal and camphor. This fire should be kept alive all the time.
- If possible, recite Shivapuraram by Saint Manikavasagar, the Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 2 from
Sioka 12 to 30, Narayana Sukta, or playa tape of these with soft background music (without drums). Other types of prayers or bhajans can also be sung without emotion.
- When it is ascertained that life has departed from the body, the son or person who inherits the property of the parent or designated person should take a bath. The chief mourner or KARTA in the case of father is eldest son, and in the mothers case it is usually the youngest son. Daughters may be appointed by dying person to perform their rites.
- Family needs to plan the funeral for the deceased person. Asian Cremation USA society has helpful web site www.indiancremation.org and companion book for such purpose.
- The family has to contact the Maharaj/Purohit and a funeral director to make arrangement for transporting the body and planning services. Since the coffin is to be burned, it is prudent to get an economical, simple coffin. Rental of the coffin is also a good alternative; it is provided by many funeral homes. Indian funeral packages listed on our web site and companion book discusses these options offered.
- As per our tradition as practiced back home in India, the deceased individuals last journey always starts from home to the cremation site. Thus, some of the funeral directors will make arrangement to transport the body home at a designated time to perform the Pooja ceremony. Upon completion, the body will be transported back at the crematorium.
Preparing the body
- It is a common practice to bring water for bathing from a neighbors house a white piece of cloth is held over the vessel containing the water. Close relatives rub oil and seeka (bath powder) on the head of the dead person before it is bathed. lf the condition of the body permits, it can be given a bath with abishegam materials. One or two hours before leaving home, the body should be bathed. A new or favorite dress of the deceased is used to decorate the body. The body of the female should be washed and clothed by females only. The whole procedure should be done without commotion and noise. The performer also takes a bath and remains in wet clothes.
- After the body has been dressed up, it should be placed for viewing in the casket. For men and widows either vibhuthi or chandanam is used to decorate the forehead. For females the turmeric powder and kumkumarn are used. The body should be kept in a simple state without decorations and jewelry. Betel leaf and nut is to be placed next to the body on the right side. Some people keep the milk packet next to the dead body of the child. Others keep a few coins and fruits tied in a new piece of cloth/towel in the casket.
- Thevaram is usually sung at this stage. Before the casket is removed, the ladies should pay their last respects first by placing rice at or near the mouth. The relatives follow suit, followed by friends. Women are not advised to perform this ceremony at the crematorium. The names of deceased family’s favorite Gods should be recited continuously and throughout. The casket is then removed out of the house – the legs first.
- Before the casket is placed in the vehicle, the grandsons of the deceased go around the body thrice holding a small torch (pandham) .
- The casket is placed in the vehicle and driven to the crematorium. Two persons should accompany the body; the person who performs the rites and one other who could be an elder in the family. The person who performs the rites should carry the earthen pot with the fire in it. Small coins are thrown on the way to the crematorium by some people. This signifies that irrespective of the size of the personal/family wealth, the dead has to leave everything behind.
- Those that remain at home will clean the house up to the main entrance. Rinse the clothes that were worn in hot water, and then take a bath. Discard the mat or any other spread on which the body was lying.
On reaching the Crematorium
- In the crematorium, the casket is carried from the vehicle to the platform with legs pointing South first. It is preferable to keep the casket in such a way that the leg faces the incineration chamber. In case it is not in this direction (e.g. facing the gathering), please ensure that it is carried with the legs first when entering the
- After placing the body on the platform, the person who conducts rites circumambulates to walk around anti- clockwise three times, usually starting at the leg point followed by close relatives. Others would do the same but just one round. A few grains of rice, or coins or flowers are placed at the mouth by the relatives.
- Last prayers – this is the time to recite the prayers which can be mantras, slokas from the Bhagavad Gita, the Upanishads, Thevaram, etc. The theme is to remind ourselves that the eternal soul has to commence its journey leaving the mortal body behind. The soul and body are finally separated, and the soul peacefully journeys to its destination.
- After the prayers are recited, the person who performs the rites will carry a mud pot of water on his left shoulder. Another person – next of kin, stands behind him with a sharp iron instrument. Both of them go around the casket anti-clockwise three times. When the person carrying the pot reaches the head side, he stops for a second or two, and the one with the iron instrument hits the pot gently to make a hole so that water flows out from the hole. The first hole is made at the bottom of the pot, the second one at the centre above the first hole and the third one at the top, above the center hole. This water is splashed with the back of the left hand onto the body by the person who follows. This procedure is repeated until three holes are made. At the third round, the pot is dropped behind the person carrying it. He walks away without turning back or looking at the body. The water or Ganga is the medium that separates the dead from the living; in this case, the nearest of the kin.
- The close relatives and friends may go up to the viewing window. The others disperse quietly.
- Whatever things that were brought from the home should be left behind or discarded, and are not to be taken back home. Keep the place clean.
Items required for ash collection:
- Two mud pots
- Big plastic bags
- One Kg of rice mixed with green gram
- Two or three banana leaves (entire)
- Betel leaf and nut
- Few bananas
- Loose flowers
- Cooked rice and green gram
- Few darbha grass
- Udubathi (agarbathi), camphor match box.
- Two or three packets of milk
- Small mud oil lamp, wick and oil
- A small towel or piece of cloth (about 1 yard long) white or red
- Cooked Sesbania (agathee) leaves
Procedure for ash collection
- The person who performs the rites and others will go to the crematorium the next morning to collect the ashes which will be kept on a long metal tray.
- The procedure is as follows:
- The Karmi (performer) standing at the head-side will sprinkle water, followed by milk on the ashes three times.
- Pick up the bones from the head, neck, chest region (vertebrae), the hip and leg and place them in two pots. The remaining ashes can be lumped together and placed on a banana leaf. Any excess to be placed in
- If the ashes are taken to the sea, carry three to four liters of water with you. Whether at tile crematorium or near tile sea, the performer and others who help him will take a bath and remain in wet clothes while performing the rites.
- Whether it is done in the crematorium or at the seaside, the following rites are performed:
- Spread the banana leaves one over the other with ends visible (tips facing south). Spread tile rice and gram on the leaves in an oval shape. Arrange the bones on the spread of rice. Place the bigger bones in the same order it was collected (from head to toe, with head facing south). Place the other pot with ashes next to the bones on the banana leaves.
- Light the lamp and udubathi. Arrange tile betel leaf, nut, and fruits and place them near head side. The towel or the cloth is to be placed around the heap of hones and the mud pot with ashes.
- Take the Ganges water, mix it with tap water and sprinkle it over the bones followed by milk and water Make sure that all the bones are soaked completely. Recite the names of Shiva, Narayana, Govinda or whatever name you or the deceased used to recite.
- Sprinkle tile water on the betel leaf, rice, and fruits and offer it to the departed. Say the appropriate mantras (if known). Pindas to be placed on darbha.
- Perform the final aarti, anti-clockwise.
- The performer should place all the contents in one mud pot. Then, pour milk and water to the brim so that the contents are immersed with the liquid.
- If it is done near the seaside, immerse the ashes in the sea by walking into the sea up to the chest with a supporter. When doing this, one is to look at the sun or turn east and offer a silent prayer to God requesting that peace be granted to the departed soul. The performer and others will take a bath in the sea recite the names of God or offer a prayer before returning home
- Clean the premises before you leave. Except for the utensils, pack up all the perishables and place them in the garbage bins. Nothing is to be taken back home.
- While doing the above in the crematorium, the attendants will assist in washing out the ashes and bones. Before returning home from the crematorium, take a bath.
- On the 10th, 12th, 16th , 31st day, or any other day depending on family tradition (take the advice of your elders), visit the Shiva or Vishnu temple. Pray for a peaceful journey for the departed soul.
Death rites – Some explanation
- Why are the final rites not performed by women/ladies?
According to the Hindu Dharma, womenfolk are given the right to only serve their husbands to the best of their ability. The sins and good deeds done by parents are inherited by the sons. Thus, men have the right to perform the death rites.
- Before cremation, why is a pot filled with water brought round the body three times? Why is it that
before each round a hole is made into the pot and finally broken completely after the third round?
After death, it is believed that our soul is sent to three places during its journey to eternity to face the
consequences of sins committed during our lifetime. These three places are called Nagaram, Rouravam, and Maharouravam
Water is not available at these three places, and hence a pot hill of water is brought round the body three times and then broken. Thereafter, it is believed that in whichever place the soul is, there will be sufficient
supply of water. There are also other explanations for this ritual.
- Why are thevarams and hymns sung besides the body following death?
When the soul departs the body, its feelings do not depart immediately. Hence, the thevararns, the Vedas, and hymns that we sing can be heard by the soul. As a result, the sins committed by the deceased is reduced, and in his next lifetime, he can be reborn with high esteem.
- Is it correct to cremate or bury a Hindu?
According to Hinduism, only Sanyasis are buried. Their life is said to leave through a gap in the skull.
But for others, it leaves through the eyes, nose, mouth, or ears. Another theory is that as our body contains heat when we are alive. Thus, when life leaves us, we should also be cremated. However in the case of a male child below eleven years old and a female who is 7 years and below, burial is practiced upon death.
- Why is the ash mixed in the sea?
All the holy rivers join the sea. By throwing the ash into the sea, it is mixed with all the holy rivers in the world. As such, the soul can also be reborn in any part of the world.
- After how many days can an individual visit the temple following a death at home?
It the father or mother in the family departs, it is the normal practice for the eldest son not to leave the
country’s borders for a year. This code is also extended to visiting temples – i.e. the eldest son does
not go to the Temple for a year. However in the developing world today, observing such a practice may
not be completely feasible. As such, the individual can visit the temple after 16 days of mourning.
- What is the significance of Cremation and Ceremony?
The last rites, or ceremonies, performed for the dead are to help further the journey of the jiva or atma (soul) who has left the gross body. The jiva, or more appropriately called prana, the invisible factor, remains (now called Preta) near and around the body in this world (Bhuloka). The gross body is carried to the crematorium so that it is burnt and convened into basic constituents as early as possible. When the gross body (Sharira) is burnt, the prana is rapidly detached and the detachment is solemnized by the mantras or prayers at the cremation. After the mortal remains of the body are returned to nature, the preta stands by itself in its own domain called pretaloka. Further ceremonies or Shanti prayers are performed which help the jiva to travel from its domain to the domain of ancestors (Pitruloka). The preta is enrolled or joined (Sapindikarnam) along with pithrus. After some time the journey of the soul or atma continues to join the supreme Soul or paramatma.
Post Cremation Rites
After leaving the crematorium the Karta offers three libations of water with sesame seeds. The Karta should abstain from shedding tears while giving the post cremation libations, because it is believed that the deceased has to consume all the tears.
Whatever things that were brought from the home should be left behind or discarded and are not to be taken back home. The place should be kept clean.
The mourners should then all go for bath in a river or sea chanting some bhajans or kirtans, with the youth walking ahead. The chief mourner should shave his head.
If the sea bath is not possible then all the mourners should at least visit the beach, spend some time there and then return home. At the door of their houses they should chew neem leaves, rinse their mouths with water and touching black sesame seeds, lawn grass, or any other auspicious thing and touching their feet lightly on a stone should enter the house and take a shower immediately with their clothes on.
In the evening of the day of cremation
When the sun is setting the chief mourner should light a lamp of sesame oil and place it under a tree out of the draft. [If this is not possible then the lamp should be lit in a corner of the house and kept burning for ten days or until the completion of the mourning rituals.
At the time of lighting the lamp the following prayer should be recited and then water poured around the lamp.
om andhakaara mahaa ghore mahattaa tamas-aavrute;
tamo nivaaran arthaaya imam deepam dadaamyaham
“O deceased one, surrounded by a terrible darkness, encompassed by the mode
of nescience, for the removal of that darkness, I offer this lamp to you”
If possible a learned person should be invited in the evening to give a discourse on the ephemeral nature of time and the unsubstantial nature of the universe. The person should discuss the emptiness of life and the futility of searching for substantiality in the human body which resembles the trunk of a banana tree. The body is constituted of five elements and if it returns to the elements through natural causes; there is nothing to grieve over. The earth, ocean, and even deities are bound to be destroyed. The same fate awaits the entire universe which has arisen like a bubble. How can it escape destruction? Thus, one should speak to mourners about the transient nature of life and importance of good karma.
Rules for Mourning
- The “mourners” are considered to be the close family members on the male side. Women do not observe mourning rituals for their own parents but for the parents of their husbands, since through marriage they change their “gotra.” Sons and daughters observe the rituals for their parents (this is contradictory to the previous sentence; please clarify). Parents do not observe for their children. Siblings can observe the rituals for each other. The mourners should not eat meat, salt or drink alcohol, wear perfumes or shave during the 10 days of mourning from the day of death onwards.
- Showering should be done daily with the minimum amount of luxury.
- Cooking should not be done in the house and all food should be brought from friends’ houses.
- The mourners should sleep on the ground and not engage in any form of entertainment.
- It is customary not to greet anyone or even to return a greeting.
- Visitors to the house should not be entertained in any way.
- These rules should be observed until the 10th day ceremonies.
- If due to social and professional circumstances these rules of mourning cannot be observed for all 10 days they should be observed for at least 3 days.
Post Mourning Rituals
On the 10th, 11th, 12th, and 13th day after the death, rituals are performed in order to mark the termination of the social isolation of mourning and the returning to normal life.
These rituals consist of:
- Punyaha vachanam, A purification ceremony
- Shanti Homa, a fire-ritual for peace of mind for the family and for the departed one.
- Ananda Homa, for inviting a return to joyous living and severance with death and mourning.
- Sapindi-karana, a rite to mark the transition of the deceased and a merging with the ancestors.
- Shubha-svikrana, done on the 13th day offerings are made to the 9 planets and all the mourners bathe and wear new clothes. In the evening all the relatives and friends are invited for a feast.
- Danam giving gifts in charity. These are a minimum of five (1) sesame seeds (2) clothing (3) gold (4) a water vessel (5) coconut representing a cow and the price thereof. According to the wishes of the family a further 10 items may be given or even 16.
- If 10 items are to be given they are: (1) Bhumi (potting mix) (2) sesame seeds (3) gold (4) ghee (5) clothing (6) rice (7) Jaggery (8) salt (9) silver (10) go-danam & a coconut and the price of a cow.
Requirements for a Cremation
|black sesame seeds||100 grams|
|white mustard seeds||100 grams|
|sesame oil||1 small bottle|
|tulasi leaves||few sprigs|
|garland for deceased||1|
|clay lamp||1 large|
|clay pot (for water)||2 large|
|raw white rice||1 kilogram|
|rice flour||500 grams|
|flowers (white)||1 bunch|
|incense sticks||1 packet|
|wood for fire – unused, unblemished twigs||1 box|
|banana leaves – unblemished||2|
|matches or lighter||1 box or 1 respectively|
|trays (brass, copper, steel)||3|
|garbage bag, paper napkins, tissue papers and drinking water||1 large|
|plastic/clothe mat for sitting||1 large|