Guide to antyesti: Hindu funeral and mourning rituals

5 min read

Funeral practices in Hinduism

  • Hindu funeral rituals, called antyesti, begin at the home and involve family and friends.

  • The body is washed, anointed and dressed, and people gather and pray.

  • Cremation is traditional, and generally takes place within 24 hours of a person’s passing.

  • In Hindu cremation rituals, any families scatter ashes in a sacred body of water within a day or two to signify the final separation of the soul from the body.

Every religion has its own unique funerary and mourning traditions that guide the bereaved through loss. In Hinduism, funeral rites are known as antyesti, which translates as “last sacrifice,” and they are informed by the idea that the body and soul are distinct entities.

Although customs vary among different sects and groups, the general belief is that when a person passes away, their body dies while their soul goes on to be reincarnated. That said, reincarnation itself is not the end goal.

It is a step in a process whose ultimate destination is becoming one with Brahman, the divinity whose presence inhabits all things. Hindu funeral rites aim to untether the soul from the body to allow it to move on in this essential journey. 

This belief is shared by more than 1 billion people; Hinduism is the third-largest religion in the world. It is also one of the oldest, dating back some four millennia.

What does a Hindu funeral entail?

The first part of a Hindu funeral takes place at home. Typically, members of the family will wash their loved one’s body with a combination of yogurt, milk, ghee, and honey, apply essential oils to their head, and dress them in a white sheet; a red sheet is used for the funeral of a married woman whose husband is still alive. Those who are preparing the body also place their loved one’s hands in a palms-together prayer position and tie their big toes together. 

Garlands of flowers are placed on the body and rice balls left near the open casket, if there is one, as an offering to the ancestors. An oil lamp symbolizing the soul is lit and placed near the person’s head, and may remain lit for 12 days.

Relatives, friends, and other mourners then gather to view the departed and pay respects. They may express some words of condolence to the immediate family. Mourners typically dress in white, modest clothing, which symbolizes purity, and female mourners take care to wear garments that cover their knees and arms. 

A Hindu priest and/or the eldest son in the family will usually lead the group in sacred chants or mantras. If there are no sons, another male from the family may fill this role. While non-Hindu mourners are welcome to pay respects and to join in chanting, it is not required. 

What happens to the body?

Hindu belief posits that the body is made up of five elements: earth, air, water, fire, and space, and that cremation—known as mukhagni—returns it to its origins. Doing this quickly enables the soul to be set free with minimal delay and proceed in its journey to its next incarnation. 

Cremation thus takes place within 24 hours of a loved one’s passing, and traditionally it is only attended by men. Male family members carry the body to the cremation site, where they place the person’s body with feet facing south. 

Over time, some of these traditions have evolved. Nowadays hearses are often used to transport loved ones rather than being carried by foot, and though female family members historically did not attend the cremation, now they may be permitted to.

Hindu funeral rites aim to untether the soul from the body to allow it to move on in its essential journey.

The cremation process itself is generally overseen by the eldest son in the family with the help of a Hindu priest. A “last meal” is offered by placing rice or sesame seeds in the person’s mouth, and the body is surrounded by flowers. In some cases, families designate a single relative to use a stick to strike the person’s head during cremation to encourage the soul to fully detach. After the ceremony, mourners return home, bathe, and sing songs to help usher the soul of their loved one on.

Within a day or two of cremation, many people disperse ashes within a sacred body of water, like the Ganges River. This scattering signals a final separation between body and soul. 

In some cases, Hindus opt to bury loved ones rather than cremate them, such as when the departed is a baby, a young child, or a saint. In addition, certain Hindu traditions do not cremate at all but bury their dead, using similar rituals to the cremation ceremony.

The mourning period

After cremation, the bereaved family enters a period of mourning, during which immediate family usually refrains from visiting family shrines and other sacred spaces. They typically display a photo of their loved one at home and welcome visitors there, and perform rituals or say prayers to make sure that the soul of their loved one unites with a new body. Mourning periods vary between different Hindu traditions and can range from ten to thirty days.

On the 13th day of the mourning period, the bereaved family may hold a ceremony to help release the soul of their loved one. 

Paying tribute, one year later

On the first anniversary of a loved one’s passing, the family traditionally holds a memorial service, called shraddha or Pitru Paksha, at their home.

The ceremony, accompanied by a feast, involves the chanting of mantras and prayers as well as readings from scripture. It is generally conducted by a priest.

Traditionally the service and feast are held at home, but families today may choose another location, such as a favorite restaurant or a place that held special meaning to the person who passed away.

Attire is similar to what is worn at a funeral: typically white clothing, with women covering their arms and knees. The spirit of the ceremony is one of remembering and celebrating the life of your loved one.

Hindu ceremonies outside of India

Hindus who do not live in India must adapt some traditions to suit the change in location. For instance, attending the cremation may not be possible, depending on the cremation regulations in your area.

Compromise may also be necessary in the dispersal of ashes. For Hindu families who cannot get to the Ganges River or another sacred body of water in India, a loved one’s ashes can be scattered in any other river or body of water, during the recitation of prayers and mantras.

Though it is ideal to put a loved one’s ashes in body of water that is considered holy, ultimately it is the intention that counts. A Hindu priest, a trusted funeral director, or both can help you find a compromise that suits your family.

Keep in mind that Hindu traditions, like those of other groups, change with the times. What is key in all cases is to honor the memory of your loved one in a way that feels authentic and meaningful to you.

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