Customs and Rituals

How do Hindus deal ritually with death and mourning?

Hindus generally prefer cremation to burial, and most hope that their loved ones will scatter their ashes over the waters of the Ganges or one of India’s many other sacred rivers. Every year many thousands of Hindu families bring the bodies of their loved ones to Banaras for cremation at the “burning ghats (steps)” toward the downstream side of the holy city. There (or closer to home if they cannot travel easily), led by the eldest son or an older male relative, the family completes a set of ancient rituals. They bathe and dress the body and light the pyre. The ritual leader walks four times to the left around the pyre and pours ghee over the body while the family chant divine names.

For anywhere from eight days to a month the family observes a period of mourning and ritual impurity. To bring that period to a close, many families arrange a ritual meal called shraddha. Relatives must administer to and nourish the dead person’s spirit, lest it continue to travel abroad as a restless and potentially troublesome demon. In the case of a famous Brahmin, an extended period of mourning might last a full year. Especially holy persons, such as noted gurus, are sometimes not cremated but buried, seated upright in the lotus posture. Some sects, such as the Lingayats or Virashaivas, prefer burial for all members—possibly the result of Islamic influence. Hindus in Europe and the United States generally cremate their dead within twenty-four hours of death. Mourners, wearing mostly white, gather at the home for a final viewing. Family members often arrange a memorial service in the local temple to observe the death anniversary.


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