Here in America and in most of Canada, we have funeral traditions that have stood the test of time for decades, even centuries.
But our traditions are vastly different from those in other countries and cultures.
This article looks at Indian funeral traditions and is part of a series that highlights how different cultures care for their dead. Other parts of the series are about Japanese funeral traditions and South African funeral traditions, among others.
Note, these traditions may vary depending on the person and their beliefs.
Hinduism is the most common religion in India at 79.8% of the population according to the 2011 Census of India, and Islam comes in second with 14.2% of the population.
Islam is the world’s second largest religion with more than 1.5 billion followers, and Indonesia, India, and Pakistan are the top three countries Muslims live in. Hinduism is the world’s third largest religion with more than 1 billion followers and most of its followers live in India and also Nepal, Sri Lanka, and other areas of the world.
There are some similarities between these religions’ traditions, like the acceptance of organ donation, but even though they’re both practiced in India, they also have some differing funeral traditions and beliefs.
For Hindus, if someone is known to be approaching death, that person and their loved ones should say a mantra, a sacred utterance, for comfort. For Muslims, loved ones encourage their dying loved one to say shahada, the Muslim profession of faith meaning “There is no god but Allah and Muhammad is the prophet of Allah.”
Muslims believe in burying the deceased within 24 hours of death, so there isn’t a visitation before the funeral service.
Hindu visitations have an open casket for viewing the deceased, but you’re not allowed to touch the deceased. Embalming is an acceptable practice for Hinduism. Black formal clothing is not appropriate funeral attire, so white casual clothing should be worn. The priest and everyone present will say prayers, hymns, and mantras.
Hindus have a cremation ceremony rather than a funeral service. Traditionally in India, the cremation ceremony would be held by the Ganges River. The karta, usually the oldest male family member, would circle the deceased three times counter-clockwise while sprinkling holy water, keeping the deceased to his left. A pyre would be built and the karta would light it on fire to begin the cremation process.
Today, the cremation is typically done at a crematory, but holy water still may be sprinkled on the deceased before the cremation begins. The karta may get to press the button to start the cremation machine.
Muslims have a funeral service and burial for the deceased. Cremation isn’t acceptable in the Islamic religion and neither is embalming unless it’s required by law. Funeral prayers, known as Salat al-Janazah, are performed at the mosque facing qibla, toward Mecca, but they aren’t said inside of it, rather in a prayer room or outside of the mosque. After the prayers are completed, everyone goes to the cemetery for the burial.
Traditionally, only men attended the burial, but now men and women typically can attend. Graves are dug perpendicular to qibla, and the deceased is put in the grave on their right side facing qibla. Then, wood or stones are placed on the deceased before the soil is put in. Traditionally, big monuments aren’t acceptable, so a small headstone or grave marker is placed.
The Hindu mourning period begins after the cremation of the deceased and lasts for 13 days. Family of deceased should stay home during the mourning period and not visit temples, festivals, or other people’s homes, but sometimes visits at the mourner’s home are allowed.
The Muslim mourning period usually lasts for 40 days, but widows may mourn for a full year. Women may not be allowed to talk to na-mahram, eligible men she could marry, during mourning. While mourning, people can show their grief through crying; but wailing, breaking things, or not having faith in Allah isn’t acceptable.