Hindu Death Rites


Hindus generally observe many rites throughout their lives most are planned well ahead and plenty of guidance is available. However in this age of rapid changes and urban living and the breakdown of the extended family, most Hindus are ignorant of the customs associated with death.  The last rites are extremely important and when death comes so suddenly, many people are totally unaware of or even know what has to be done. The Garuda Purana is the Authoritative text on death, dying and the post mortem rituals. The following is the gist of what should be done on the death of a loved one.
Upon dying at home — or in a hospital

Wen a person is close to death the family members should inform the family priest (purohit) or find and appoint a purohit who will direct and conduct the final rites. Begin the chanting of the Vishnu Sahasranama Stotram or continuously play a CD of the same within the hearing the of dying one. If the Vishnu sahasranama Stotra cannot be recited then any other text or name of God should be recited or played. Other types of prayers or bhajans can also be sung but without emotion. Most hospices and hospitals in Australia will accomodate this practice in some way —  don't be hesitant to discuss it with the palliative care nurse.

When it is seen that death is very near — the dying person should be transferred to a new grass mat on the floor if the death occurs at home. They should not be allowed to die on a bed for 2 reasons (1) death should take place in the arms of Mother Earth and the dying person should remain conscious for as long as possible listening to the recitation of the name of God. (2) the bed needs to be discarded afterwards as no ne will sleep in it.

Pour a few spoons of Ganges water/Tulasi water into the mouth either at the time of death or soon after a person is dead.

An sesame oil lamp (with one wick only) and a single agarbathi are lit and kept near the head of the corpse. A photograph of deceased family's favourite deity may also be placed at the head side. Outside the house prepare a fire in an earthen pot using a few pieces of wood, charcoal and camphor. This fire should be kept alive all the time.

Upon death taking place

When it is ascertained that life has departed from the body, the son or person who inherits the property of the parent should take a bath.  The chief mourner or KARTA  in the case of the father it is the elder son and in the mother's case it is usually the youngest son. Daughters may be appointed by the dying person to perform their rites.

When a person is pronounced dead by the doctor, one needs to obtain the death certificate from the appropriate authorities.

Contact the priest and a funeral director and make arrangements for collecting the body and booking the crematorium.  Since the coffin is to be burned — it is prudent to get the cheapest and most simple coffin available. No one will be in the mood to discuss the price of the coffin but one should not pay more than necessary. Understandably, the price varies from company to company.

Some funeral directors will allow the body to be taken back to the home for the final rites. This of course is the preferable way and should be discussed beforehand.
Preparing the body

The funeral directors then collect the corpse and take it for washing and dressing. Most funeral directors will accommodate the family who wishes to wash the body themselves. The family members who can, should assist in this service and not leave it to strangers to do it.  Close relatives rub oil and seeka (bath powder) on the head of the dead person before it is bathed. If the condition of the body permits, and the family desire it — it can be given a bath with abishegam materials — milk, yoghurt, honey, ghee, sandal wood paste etc. Males and widows should be dressed in white. Married women and girls should be dressed in coloured garments orange, yellow or red. The big toes are tied together with a piece of string. Place the hands with the two thumbs tied together on the chest as if he or she is doing a namaskar. The whole procedure should be done without commotion and weeping.

After the body has been dressed up, it should be placed for viewing in the coffin. For men and widows either vibuti or chandanam is used to decorate the forehead. For females the turmeric powder and kumkumam are used.  A simple garland of flowers and tulasi leaves should be worn around its neck.
Customs to be observed at the Home

If the body is brought back to the home it should be brought in head-first and placed on the floor with its head to the South. While the family members and friends sit around the coffin Thevaram or Divya prabandham or bhajans can be sung without musical accompaniment.   It can be kept at home for as long as the family desire about an hour or so to allow for people to gather. Before the coffin is removed, the ladies should pay their last respects first by placing rice at or near the mouth. The relatives follow suit followed by friends. Women are not advised to perform this ceremony at the crematorium. The names of deceased family's favourite Gods should be recited continuously and throughout.

Before the coffin is removed a rice ball (Pinda)  is offered at the place where the person died or where the coffin has been. The coffin is taken out of the house with the legs first. As it is taken out of the house another rice ball is offered on the threshold

The coffin is placed in the hearse and driven to the crematorium. Two persons should accompany the body; the Karta who performs the rites and one other who could be an elder in the family. The Karta should carry the earthen pot with the fire in it.

Those that remain at home will thoroughly clean the house and wash the floors etc. All   them take a bath after rinsing the clothes they were wearing and other things used. Discard the bed, mat or any other spread on which the body was lying.

At the Crematorium

At the crematorium, the coffin is carried from the vehicle to the platform with legs pointing South first. It is preferable to keep the coffin in such a way that the leg faces the incineration chamber. In case it is not in this direction (e.g. facing the gathering), please ensure that it is carried with the legs first when entering the incineration chamber

After placing the coffin on the platform with its feet to the south, the performer of the funeral rites should sit, along with the other mourners, facing the south. The offering of 3 pindas should be performed, then the Punyaha Vachana ceremony is done to purify the corpse prior to it's consignment of the fires of the crematorium. The holy water is sprinkled over the corpse.  The   corpse is covered with a new shroud.

Another  pinda should be placed in the hand of the deceased.  The corpse should be anointed with the ghee and wood chips placed in the coffin. The eyes, mouth ears and nostrils are covered with dollar coins.

Last prayers —  this is the time to recite the prayers which can be either mantras, slokas from the Bhagavad Gita, the Upanishads, Thevaram, Divya Prabandham, Bhajans etc.

After the prayers are recited, the Karta circumambulates the coffin anti-clockwise three times, usually starting at the feet, followed by close relatives. Others could do the same but just one round instead of 3. A few grains of rice, or coins or flowers are sometimes placed at the mouth by the relatives and friends after each round.

Finally the Karta carries a clay pot of water on the left shoulder. Another person - next of kin, walks behind him with a sharp iron instrument. Both of them go around the coffin anti-clockwise three times. When the person carrying the pot reaches the head each time, he stops for a second or two, and the one with the iron instrument hits the pot gently to make a hole so that water flows out from the hole. The first hole is made at the bottom of the pot, the second one at the centre above the first hole and the third one at the top, above the centre hole. This water is splashed with the back of the left hand onto the corpse by the person who follows. This procedure is repeated till three holes are made. At the third round, the pot is dropped behind the person carrying it. He walks away without turning back or looking at the body. The water or Ganga is the medium that separates the dead from the living in this case the nearest of the kin.

A fire should be lit in the clay vessel according to the injunctions in the sacred texts. Having invoked and  worshipped the fire-god named Kravyada  with flowers and grains of white rice the fire is placed upon the coffin as it is pushed into the incinerator.

Post Cremation Rites

After leaving the crematorium the Karta offers three libations of water with sesame seeds.  The Karta should abstain from shedding tears while giving the post cremation libations, because the deceased has to consume all the tears and snot that is shed.

Whatever things that were brought from the home should be left behind or discarded and are not to be taken back home. Keep the place clean.

The mourners should then all go for bath in a river or the sea chanting some bhajans or kirtans, with the youth walking ahead.  The chief mourner should shave his head.

If the sea bath is not possible then all the mourners should at least visit the beach, spend some time there and then return home. At the door of their houses they should chew neem leaves, rinse their mouths with water and touching  black sesame seeds, lawn grass, or any other auspicious thing and touching their feet lightly on a stone should enter the house and take a shower immediately with their clothes on.

In the evening of the day of cremation

When the sun is setting the chief mourner should light a lamp of sesame oil and place it under a tree out of the draft [If this is not possible then the lamp should be lit in a corner of the house and kept burning for ten days or until the completion of the mourning rituals.

At the time of lighting the lamp recite the following prayer and then pour water around the lamp.

om andhakaara mahaa ghore mahattaa tamas-aavrute;
tamo nivaaran arthaaya imam deepam dadaamyaham

"O deceased one, surrounded by a terrible darkness, encompassed by the mode of nescience, for the removal of that darkness, I offer this lamp to you"

If possible  a learned person should be invited in the evening to give a discourse on the ephemeral nature of time and the unsubstantial nature of the universe. One  should tell discuss  about the emptiness of life and the futility of  searching for susbtantiality in the human body which resembles the trunk of a banana tree. The body is constituted of five elements and if it returns to the elements through natural causes what is there to grieve over? The earth, ocean and even deities are bound to be destroyed. The same fate awaits the entire universe which has arisen like a bubble. How it can escape destruction? Thus, one  should speak to mourners about the transient nature of life.

Rules for Mourning

The "mourners" are considered to be the close family members on the male side. Women do not observe mourning rituals for their own parents but for the parents of their husbands, since through marriage they change their "gotra". Sons and daughters observe the rituals for their parents. Parent's do not observe for their children. Siblings can observe the rituals for each other. The
The mourners should not eat meat, salt or  drink alcohol, wear perfumes or shave during the 10 days of mourning from  the day of death onwards.
Showering should be done daily with the minimum amount of luxury.
Cooking should not be done in the house and all food should be brought from friends’ houses or take-away.
The mourners should  sleep on the ground and not engage in any form of entertainment.
It is customary not to greet anyone or even to return a greeting.
Visitors to the house should not be entertained in anyway.
These rules should be observed until the 10th day ceremonies.
If due to social and professional circumstances these rules of mourning cannot be observed for all  10 days they should be observed for at least 3 days.


On the 10th , 11th, 12th, and 13th   day after the death, rituals are performed  in order to mark the termination of the social isolation of mourning and the returning to normal life.

These rituals consist of:
Punyaha vachanam — A purification ceremony
Shanti Homa — a fire-ritual for peace of mind for the family and for the departed one.
Ananda Homa — for inviting a return to joyous living and severance with death and mourning.
Sapindi-karana — a rite to mark the transition of the deceased and a merging with the ancestors.
Shubha-svikrana — done on the 13th day – offerings are made to the 9 planets and all the mourners bathe and wear new cloths. In the evening all the relatives and friends are invited for a feast.
Danam — giving gifts in charity. These are a minimum of five  (1) sesame seeds (2) clothing (3) gold (4) a water vessel (5)  coconut representing a cow and the price thereof. According to the wishes of the family a further 10 items may be given or even 16.

If 10 items are to be given they are: (1)  Bhumi (potting mix) (2) sesame seeds (3) gold (4) ghee (5) clothing (6) rice (7) Jaggery (8) salt (9) silver (10) go-danam — a coconut and the price of a cow.


Coconut - 1

camphor - 5 blocks

ghee  - 500 gms

black sesame seeds - 100 gms

white mustard seeds - 100 gms

sesame oil - 1 small bottle

tulasi leaves - few sprigs

garland for deceased - 1

clay lamp - 1 large

clay pot [for water] - 2  large

raw white rice - 1 kilo

white cloth cotton - 2 metres

rice flour - 500 gms

dollar coins - 10

Flowers (white) - 1 bunch

Chandan - 1 container

Vibhuti - 1 Pkt

Incense sticks - 1 pkt

Additional requirements
dry twigs for the homa fire
2  banana leaves
1 box of matches
1 can opener
3 Brass trays
1 large garbage bag
1 large plastic/grass mat for sitting on

Dakshina — the recommended gratuity for the cremation ceremony is $200

All the above items must be brought to the cemetery.
All the mourners should wear old clothes, that can either be washed or discarded. White being the colour of mourning not black.
Immediately after the funeral all the mourners should bathe before going home [if possible] and change their clothes or at least they should sprinkle water over themselves and wash their hands before entering the house, the clothes should be discarded or immediately washed
The immediate family should not go straight home but should proceed to the banks of a river, or to the sea-shore and after bathing in the water remain there until sunset, then proceed to the home.

The corpse is called shava  at the place of death — the goddess of the earth  is pleased by the pinda offered. The corpse called pantha  at the door, and the deity Vastu is pleased with the offering. It is called khecara  at the crossroads the Elementals are pleased by the offering. At the resting place the corpse is known as bhuta and the guardian deities of the ten directions are satisfied by the offering. On the pyre the corpse is called sadhaka and preta after the collection of the bones.