Life events - Death

In Hindu belief, the soul of the dead person wanders through prethaloka; the world of ghosts and spirits, before it reaches pitraloka; the world of its ancestors and the gods. Rituals and ceremonies are followed to help strengthen the soul in its journey. In Buddhism, monks and nuns are part of the ceremonies. In Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism, which originated in the subcontinent, the bodies of the dead are cremated, while in Muslim and Christian practice, the dead are buried. Muslims bury their dead in simple white shrouds and do not use coffins. The Parsis expose their dead to the vultures who pick their bones clean.

Hinduism

Painting of a gardener making a jasmine flower garland.
Image: Flower garlands are used at funerals as well as joyous occasions.

The rituals of death are also part of the sacramental activity or samskara of a household in Hinduism. It is the family members of the dead person who perform the corpse's ablutions and dress and prepare it for the final journey. The body is dressed in its finest clothes, garlanded with flowers, and laid on a bier or mat decorated with flowers so that mourners can pay their respects. Simple, pure white cotton clothes are the worn by family members and visitors to a house of mourning. Lamps are placed near the body and prayers and hymns are recited. Incense and sandalwood smoke perfumes the air, kept burning near the body. Flowers, rice, sacred grasses, holy water from the Ganges, and numerous other objects from nature form part of the ceremony. The body is then transported to the place of cremation on a bamboo pallet. The last rites are usually performed by the eldest son or closest male relative. The body is then returned to the elements with the cleansing power of fire. After the funeral, the mourners have purifying baths. The ashes are collected and immersed in flowing river waters, traditionally the sacred waters of the Ganges. As with all ceremonies in the subcontinent, the shraddha or death rites can be simple or complex. They can be very detailed and carry on for weeks, varying according to local tradition and region, or abbreviated and followed in principle, if not in every detail. Generally, shraddha takes place for twelve days during which rice balls or pinda are offered to the spirit of the dead person, who is travelling through the spirit realms. On the thirteenth day the soul is believed to have reached its destination and the life is commemorated with a special meal attended by relatives and friends where food is also served to the poor.

Islam

Muslims believe in the resurrection of the soul and its eternal life, and the attainment of Paradise after a life of unconditional submission to the will of God. Death is merely a cessation of life, but not of existence. The injunction upon the bereaved is to remain calm and prayerful and excessive wailing and keening is forbidden. The body is cleansed and washed (ritual washing called ghusul) and incense, herbs, camphor, and flowers or other perfumes are used to scent the water and surroundings, and give the body a fragrant aura. The corpse is then wrapped in clean, white cloth (kafan). After the imam leads the community of mourners in formal funeral prayers (jan-azha), the larger part of which are enunciated silently, the men accompany the body to the gravesite. It is usually preferred to lay it in its shroud directly in the earth, on its right side and facing Mecca.

Zoroastrianism

The Zoroastrian faith treats fire, water and air as symbols of purity; therefore Dakhma Nishin, or Sky Burial marks the end of a human life. The Parsis of India leave their dead in Towers of Silence or dakhmas, to be devoured by birds of prey, and avoid defiling the elements. A flock of vultures take only a few hours to dispose of the dead.