The tragic impact of Covid on India in recent weeks has brought searing images to the entire world, among which are crowded (and makeshift, temporary) cremation grounds. This brief paper will explain some basic aspects of Hindu death ceremonies.
Cremation, the burning of a dead body, has long been the central aspect of Hindu death ceremonies. Not all Hindus are cremated, as especially holy men and infants are buried rather than cremated. Many Hindu communities in south India also practice burial rather than cremation. There are electronic crematoriums today, but an open wood fire is still preferred by most.
In Hindu theology, the cremation fire is a sacrificial fire; “the fire acts as a witness and purifying agent, consecrating yet another transition in the life of a Hindu” (McGee 2004, 352). The funeral service is a samskāra or sacrament, one of sixteen traditional life cycle rituals, though many of these are not practiced at the present time (see Pandey 1969).
As with Christian funerals, there is a general pattern that is widely followed but also a great deal of variety in the actual practice of cremation ceremonies. The current crisis in India has forced the abandonment of many traditions, such as the dead body usually being ceremonially washed in the home, then wrapped in a clean cloth before being carried in procession to the cremation ground. Covid restrictions mean this important aspect of closure for family and close friends is often not possible, bodies being taken directly from hospitals to cremation grounds. The eldest son usually lights the cremation fire after circumambulating the body three times; who can actually be present during Covid cremations is not clear, but surely people are not in attendance who normally would be.
Many Hindu traditions have a focus on the proper practice of rituals and the mantras (sacred chants) that usually accompany rituals. The pressure of lines of corpses awaiting cremation creates fears of inadequate attention to ritual obligations, another anxiety for family and friends of the deceased.
A day or two after the cremation there are ceremonies related to collecting the ashes and any remaining bones for proper disposal, often immersion in a river. Ten days of mourning follow the cremation, where friends visit the family to express condolences and share happy memories. Sons shave their heads and all dress completely in white. Covid restrictions impact this important aspect of social life, bonding, and closure with the departed loved one.
In many traditions there are monthly memorials of the departed for the first year; in almost all traditions there are annual remembrance ceremonies. Death is always painful, and Covid deaths have brought a new element of pain all across the world. But the current crisis in India has exponentially raised the pain threshold for grieving families and friends.
McGee, Mary. 2004. “Saṃskāra.” In The Hindu World, eds. Sushil Mittal, Gene Thursby. New York: Routledge, pp. 332-356.
Pandey, Rajbali. 1969. Hindu Saṁskāras: Socio-Religious Study of the Hindu Sacraments. Second revised edition. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.