Antyesti or Hindu funeral rites, sometimes referred as Antim Sanskar, is an important Sanskara, sacrament of Hindu society. Extensive texts of such rites are available, particularly in the Garuda Purana. There is wide inconsistency in theory and practice, and the procedures differ from place to place. Further, these rites also differ depending on the caste, jāti, social group, and the status of the deceased person.
Hindu funeral rites may generally be divided into four stages:
- The rituals and rites to be performed when the person is believed to be on the death bed.
- Rites which accompany the disposal of the dead body.
- Rites which enable the soul of the dead to transit successfully from the stage of a ghost (preta) to the realm of the ancestors, the Pitrs.
- Rites performed in honor of the Pitrs.
Procedures for cremation vary from place to place. Immediately after the death, the body is placed on the floor with the head pointing towards the south which is the direction of the dead. An oil lamp is lit and placed near the body, this lamp is kept burning continuously for the first three days following death. In Hinduism, the dead body is considered to be symbol of great impurity hence minimal physical contact is maintained, perhaps to avoid the spread of infections or germs. Most often the body is bathed by purified water, and then dressed in new clothes, if the dead was a male or a widow then generally white clothes are used,whereas if the dead was a married women with her husband still alive or a young unmarried girl, then the body is dressed either in red or yellow. Sacred ash (bhasma) is applied on the forehead of the deceased, especially for the worshippers of Lord Shiva (Saivites), otherwise sandalwood paste is applied on the forehead, if the dead was a worshipper for Lord Vishnu (Vaishnava).
Further, a few drops of the holy Ganges water may be put into the mouth of the deceased so that the soul may attain liberation, also a few leaves of the holy basil (tulsi) are placed on the right side of the dead body. The body then may be adorned with jewels, and placed lying on a stretcher, with the head pointing towards the south. Sometimes the body may be kept in a sitting position too. The stretcher is adorned with different flowers including roses, jasmine, and marigolds, and the body is almost covered with the flowers. Thereafter, the close relatives of the deceased person carry the stretcher on their shoulders to the cremation ground. If it is located at a distance, traditionally the stretcher is placed on a cart pulled by animals like bullocks. Nowadays vehicles are also used.
The cremation ground is called Shmashana (in Sanskrit), and traditionally it is located near a river, if not on the river bank itself. There, a pyre is prepared, on which the corpse is laid with its feet facing southwards, so that the dead person can walk in the direction of the dead. The jewels, if any, are removed. Thereafter, the chief mourner (generally the eldest son) walks around the pyre three times keeping the body to his left. While walking he sprinkles water and sometimes ghee onto the pyre from a vessel. He then sets the pyre alight with a torch of flame. The beginning of the cremation heralds the start of the traditional mourning period, which usually ends on the morning of the 13th day after death. When the fire consumes the body, which may take a few hours, the mourners return home.
During this mourning period the family of the dead are bound by many rules and regulations of ritual impurity. Immediately after the cremation the entire family is expected to have a bath. One or two days after the funeral, the chief mourner returns to the cremation ground to collect the mortal remains and put them in an urn. These remains are then immersed in a river. Those who can afford it may go to select places like Varanasi, Haridwar, Allahabad, Sri Rangam and Kanya Kumari to perform this rite of immersion of mortal remains.
The preta-karma is an important aspect of Hindu funeral rites, and its objective is to facilitate the migration of the soul of the dead person from the status of a preta (ghost or spirit) to the abode of the ancestors (Pitrs). It is believed that if this stage of funeral rites is not performed or performed incorrectly, the spirit of the dead person shall become a ghost (bhuta). The rites generally last for ten or eleven days, at the end of which the preta is believed to join the abode of the ancestors. Thereafter, they are worshipped during the ‘sraddha’ ceremonies.
If a person dies in a different country, in a war, or drowns, or in any other manner that his body cannot be retrieved for the antyesti, his funeral rites may be performed without the dead body, and similar procedures are followed had the dead body been available. If such a person is later discovered to have not actually died, then “resurrection” rituals are mandatory before his being admitted to the world of the living. The Hindu communities in the United States have begun to look at streamlining the process of cremation rituals and post-cremation observances.
Legality (United Kingdom)
In the United Kingdom, it was formerly illegal to conduct a traditional outdoors Hindu cremation under the 1902 Cremation Act, with Hindus having to cremate their dead in indoor crematoriums instead. In 2006, Daven Ghai, a British Hindu who had been refused the right to have a traditional funeral by Newcastle City Council, brought a case to court in which he claimed that the current law did in fact allow open air cremations, so long as they were in some enclosed building and away from the public. A High Court ruling disagreed with his claim, and the-then Justice Secretary Jack Straw stated that the British public would “find it abhorrent that human remains were being burned in this way.”
Nonetheless, upon taking it to the Court of Appeals in 2010, the judge, Lord Justice Neuberger, ruled that such a cremation would be legal under the 1902 Act, so long as it was performed within a building, even an open-air one. Upon his victory, Ghai told reporters that “I always maintained that I wanted to clarify the law, not disobey or disrespect it” and expressed regret at the amount that the trial had cost the taxpayer. He stated that he was thankful that he now had “the right to be cremated with the sun shining on my body and my son lighting the pyre” and he and other Hindus and Sikhs in the country had begun investigations into finding a site upon which they could perform the funerary ceremonies.