Information on Hindu funeral traditions and etiquette
Hindus believe that when the physical body dies, the soul reincarnates into another life force. Hinduism, originating in India, teaches that the destiny of a soul’s next incarnation depends on the actions of the individual in their last physical life, otherwise known as Karma.
To leave the repetitive cycle of reincarnation, a person must reach the moksha, which is the transcendent state of salvation when the soul is absorbed into Brahman, who is the highest god of Hinduism.
Although this belief is widely accepted with Hinduism, it is important to understand that there are many denominations of Hinduism, each with differing customs and beliefs.
Planning a Hindu funeral
In Hinduism, traditionally cremation often occurs within 24 hours of death. This is not always possible now, as crematoria are often quite busy and may not be able to offer a time slot at short notice. However, funerals may still take place fairly quickly.
Hindu funeral traditions
After death, the person who has passed away is only touched when absolutely necessary. Traditionally, the bereaved wash their loved one. In cases when this is not possible, a funeral home will attend to this ritual.
A viewing will normally take place, but since cremation typically happens within 24 hours after death, they are usually very brief. For the same reason, embalming is rare and unnecessary.
The person who has passed away will be displayed in a simple casket with flowers placed at the feet, holy basil sprinkled on the inside and a garland of flowers or a necklace of wooden beads draped around the neck. If the person is male, ash wood or sandalwood may be placed on their forehead. Turmeric is used if the person is female.
Mantras and hymns are recited by family and friends around the casket for the duration of the viewing. Towards the end of the viewing, some Hindus observe the custom of placing rice balls close to their loved one.
Hindu funeral service and cremation
All Hindus are expected to be cremated, except for babies, children and saints. Traditionally, all cremations would take place on the Ganges River, but with Indian Hindus now living all over the world, it is expected and accepted for cremation to happen locally.
Today, most crematoria can accommodate the traditions and rituals of a Hindu cremation. Typically, the casket is carried into the crematorium feet first, while mourners recite prayers. Then the bereaved will circle their loved one in prayer and observe the cremation. Only after the cremation is complete will the service be over and the mourners will go home.
After the funeral
Traditionally, on the following day, the ashes are immersed in the Ganges River as it is considered sacred in Hinduism. Hindus living outside India may choose to repatriate their loved one’s ashes to India so that they can be spread over the Ganges, but this is not always practical or affordable. As a result, more rivers are becoming acceptable substitutes all over the world.
Typically, the bereaved mourn for 13 days. During this time, it is customary for some to have a picture of their loved one displayed in the house, adorned with a garland of flowers. Visitors are welcomed during this period, and a ritual that helps the soul to reincarnate is performed.
On the year anniversary of the death, the family celebrate a memorial event that honours their loved one’s life. Once this memorial is completed, the family members will continue with their normal lives.
Hindu funeral etiquette
What to wear to a Hindu funeral differs greatly from most other major religions. Mourners should wear white casual clothing to the viewing and service – black formal clothing is not appropriate.
According to Hindu funeral tradition there is usually an open casket and guests are expected to view it. You should do so quietly and respectfully, and without touching the person who has passed away.
Hindu funeral flowers are a common tradition. If you wish to send flowers, they should be sent to the family or funeral director before the funeral service. It is not considered appropriate to bring food as a gift.
Non-Hindu mourners are generally welcome to participate in the funeral service’s rituals, but there is no pressure to take part if this compromises your own religious beliefs.
For more information on religious funerals, visit our religious funerals page.