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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.
About 4000 years before, 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 notion, since Hinduism stresses the concept of the body being detached from the soul, 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 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 miminal 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, few drops of the holy Ganges water may be put into the mouth of the deceased so that the soul may attain liberation, also 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 it 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 bounded 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 appears 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.
Tamil Brahmin funerals
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 has a quick bath (no soap, etc). Sits on the ground in the wet clothes. He wears only a single cloth. The purohit says the mantras and the karta follows them. The body is lifted and kept in the funeral van. The grandson carries a ghee-flame and takes a few steps and the van follows. Then the van 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.
- Manual burning:
The following is based on Madras brahmin practice. The body is handed over to the Government officials at the crematorium. The officials consent to burn the body once you produce a doctor's certificate of death. The person who does the actual burning is called vettiyaan. He covers the body with wooden logs and then with dried dung cakes. The face and chest are left open. 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. The funeral party returns home after this. The vettiyan takes care of the further burning. He ensures that the body is fully burnt.
- Electric burning:
The body is kept on a bamboo frame and frame is kept on a railing near the door of the electric chamber. The door is opened, the railing is moved, the body goes into position and the railing is pulled back. Then the operator turns the switch on. The target temperature is around 500 degrees Celsius plus. 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 stack 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, say a beach, and immerses the ashes in the water (sanjayanam).
- Nitya vidhi:
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 9 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.
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').
This goes on for 12 months. In the 12th month, a function called Aptikam is conducted. As above, this function incorporates the relevant pujas and dhaanams (gifts to brahmins). The value of the gifts depends on how much money you have. 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 nearest male carries the rites.