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Antyesti or Hindu funeral rites, also referred to 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.
- 1 History
- 2 South Indian Brahmin funerals
- 3 Legality
- 4 See also
- 5 References
In the Indian subcontinent, human bodies were either exposed to the elements of nature, and to the birds, or buried in the earth, in a river, and sometimes a cave or an urn. Centuries later, cremation became the usual mode of disposal of the dead bodies, with certain exceptions – the exceptions being bodies of infants, yogis, sadhus, and a few others. Cremation became popular due to the Hindu concept of detachment of soul from the body at the time of death, and the transmigration of the soul from one body to another.
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 cremation 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.
Preparation of the body
Immediately after the death, family members close the mouth and eyes of the deceased, and put the arms straight. The body is placed on the floor with the head pointing towards the north and the feet towards south which is the direction of the dead. An oil lamp is lit and placed near the body which 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 is male or a widow then generally white clothes are used, whereas if the dead is a married woman 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 if they are worshippers of Lord Shiva (Saivites), otherwise sandalwood paste is applied to 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 feet still pointing towards the north or kept in a sitting position. The stretcher is adorned with different flowers including roses, jasmine, and marigolds, and the body is almost completely 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 such as 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. A pyre is prepared, on which the corpse is laid with its feet facing southwards; this is so 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 for those who have children, husband for the childless married or brother for the unmarried) 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 lights a small fire inside deceased's mouth, this is known as mukh-aagni. The pyre is then set alight with a flaming torch. 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 has consumed the body, which may take several 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 special sacred places like Varanasi, Haridwar, Allahabad, Sri Rangam, Brahmaputra on the occasion of Ashokastami and Kanya Kumari to perform this rite of immersion of mortal remains. It is believed that if this stage of the funerary rites are not performed or are performed incorrectly, the spirit of the dead person will 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.
South Indian Brahmin funerals
Preparation of the body
The body is cleaned up by pouring water over it. The water is poured by sons and daughters. Then it is draped in a fresh, washed cloth. The relatives put uncooked rice over the mouth of the deceased.
The karta ("doer", who performs the rites) has a quick bath wearing a single cloth (no soap, etc.) and then sits on the ground in the wet cloth. The purohit says the mantras and the karta follows them. The body is lifted and put in the funeral van. The son carries a ghee-flame and takes a few steps and the van follows then speeds up and reaches the cremation ground. The purohit chants the mantras and the karta follows him. Relatives and friends visit and offer their condolences. The host is not supposed to welcome them. The relatives silently go off without saying goodbye.
There is a choice of manual burning and electric burning. While the dead is taken in a vehicle or carried, flowers are spread all over the path or road it is carried or driven down.
The following is a general practice in India. The body is handed over to the Government officials at the crematorium. The officials will give consent to burn the body once you produce a doctor's certificate of death. The person in charge of the actual burning covers the body with wooden logs and then with dried dung cakes. The face is closed at the last minute. The karta is given burning pieces of coal and he places the coal very tenderly on the chest of the departed. Then the face is covered with cloth. The funeral party returns home after this. The person in charge takes care of the further burning. He ensures that the body is fully burnt.
The body is kept on a bamboo frame on rails near the door of the electric chamber. The door is opened, the frame is moved, the body is put into position and the frame is pulled back. Then the operator turns the switch on. The target temperature is around 500 degrees Celsius. The chamber coils are kept on right from the morning, body or no body. It takes around an hour for the body to burn. The black smoke can be seen from the very tall chimney above the chamber. (Here also, the karta puts the burning pieces of coal on the chest of the body before the body is pushed into the chamber). The ashes are given to the karta. Again there are some mantras and work on the ground. Once over, the karta goes to a water body, such as a beach, and immerses the ashes in the water (sanchayanam). For electrical burning the body should not be bathed.
In Mumbai, for Marathi people generally, the dead body is wrapped in a shroud and placed on a structure made of bamboo sticks and grass carpet, an earth pot (matka) is tied with sutli and rice is cooked in small earth pots and it is placed in a big pot where aggarbattis are burning. If the deceased is a married woman, with a son, then her husband lifts the pot and her son throws flowers and koormooras. If she is a widow then her son(s) or son(s) in law, do the same while they are in way to crematorium. One member of antyatra enchants "jai ram shriram jai ram shriram" and other will follow it at first instance close relative lift dead body and after friends and other participant replace their turn. At the entrance of crematorium, those who first lifted dead body with bamboo strature will regain their position and one stone known as "jeev Khada" is place on ground. All four members will touch their left leg toe to this stone and the same stone is used for breaking earth pot for pouring water around funeral pyre after placing dead body on pyre. All member pour water with right hand thumb with cross hand in mouth of deaceased from pot which is taken by deaceased elder son after that they cover dead body with remaining wood logs showing their concent to lit fire to pyre generally ghee or vanaspati is poured on pyre, salt is thrown on it and elder son by grass torch lit pyre by his left hand not looking behind at pyre
After these rituals are over, all family members gather and announce the next timetable and venue for dashkriya vidhi and twelfth or thirteenth day
Three stones are buried in two separate places. If you are in a village, one set in the house (griha dwara kundam) and another near some water body (nadi theera kundam). The first day, the karta pours water on the ground in which the stones are buried. This is done at both sites. In the home site, you break tender coconuts and pour on the stone site. This is done accompanied by mantras. The idea is to quench the thirst of the deceased person. This goes on for another nine days. Then there are separate functions on 10th, 11th, 12th and 13th days.
- 10th day: Lot of food stuff is prepared and the relatives throw the same (lob) into a cloth spread on the floor.
- 13th day: Puja for gods is done. Includes navagraha homam. The water from the puja is sprinkled all over the house to purify the place.
Masyam or mAsika
Thereafter, offerings to the departed are made each month. These events are called Sodakumbam and Masyam. These are performed on the day of death which repeats each month. Western calendar dates are not used for this purpose. Instead, a concept called Thithi is used. There are 15 thithis in a full cycle of thithis and there are two such cycles in a month. The exact is derived from the South Indian Tamil Almanac with the help of a purohit. These offerings are made on two separate days each month. The events are conducted with the help of a purohit (called 'Sastrigal').
Special food offerings
In addition functions are held on the 27th and 45th days after the death, where again the main idea is to offer food to the departed soul through living Brahmins. Usually the son or the nearest male relative carries the rites.
This goes on for 12 months. In the 12th month, a function called Abdhikam is conducted. As above, this function incorporates the relevant pujas and daanams (gifts to Brahmins). The value of the gifts depends on how much money you have. This ritual is repeated annually.
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.
- Diviash Thakrar, Rasamandala Das, Aziz Sheikh (2008). Caring for Hindu patients. Radcliffe Publishing. ISBN 1-85775-598-7.
- Taylor, Jerome (2010-02-10). "Hindu healer wins funeral pyre battle". The Independent (London). Retrieved 2010-04-25.
- Roy, Amit (2010). "UK funeral rights for Hindus". The Telegraph.