Last Rites of Deceased in Hinduism

In the last week, I performed the last rites of my Mother. Since most of us were not much knowledgeable in the sequence and the process, and nothing was available on the net, we had to keep on asking. Here is how we did and the notes on various steps, which might be of help to others.

Remember, in Hinduism, there is a lot of significance on symbolism. Its not as if that act itself will do the trick, but the act and its symbolism will lead to creation of appropriate energies that ultimately may do the desired. There is very little difference between the “Energy” of an act and the thought. Everything is an energy – from thought, to body, to food, to water, air, fire and what we call soul. The energies in any situation are the ones which interact for a final result. Therefore, follow whatever rituals you may with the understanding that it is about creation of the requisite “Energy situation”, as opposed to fretting about the irrelevance of a ritual and its rather outlandish symbolism.

At the time of Death: As soon as the death is confirmed*, one should bring the deceased body on the floor and place it on a peace of cloth. Do the following thereafter:

- Light a lamp and dhoop or agarbatti. The lamp is supposed to be symbolic of showing light to the soul as it exits the body.
- Tie the toes with a red string (Molli – used in religious ceremonies). This act symbolises that it will help the soul from the body to go further on and “enter heaven”.
- Create a boundary around the body with turmeric. Turmeric helps to ward of negative energies from harming the soul as it exits the body.
- Some people like to put a gold ornament or one made of 5 metals (panchrattan) in the mouth of the deceased as well.

(* if the death occurs at home without a doctor around you, please call a doctor who should come and certify the death. IMPORTANT: Without that certificate, the Cremation Ground will NOT allow the Cremation to happen)

Call the priest – from the local temple or the nearest Cremation ground to help you with the last rites for the body. He will do the rites and then the Arthi (platform to carry the body made of bamboo and hay). The structure of Arthi is a brilliant concept as in the end, every thing it is made of is used up in the Cremation and nothing is left behind.

At the Cremation Ground:

Before you go to the Cremation Ground, remember to take some green leafy vegetable with you, it is used at the end and you may not be able to procure it at that time.

At the cremation ground, the body is first placed on a platform and the last rites are performed by the Son of the deceased. If the Son is not available, then the Wife or the Husband of the Deceased should perform it. If they are not available, then a real brother should do it. In their absence, the son-in-law or his son may do it. This almost seems like a tree of those who could be legal heirs and that is precisely its significance! The act of cremation prepares the heir apparent of the dead to take over the responsibilities of the departed in context of the family, business and society.

One major act here is of taking a earthen pot full of water and circling around the body offering it water and then smashing the pot near the head.

The body is then taken to the cremation area and the pyre is built up. The hay in the Arthi is used to start the fire at the pyre.

Significance of Burning the body: Hindus have a belief that the soul continues to hover around the dead body due to its attachment with it. When the body is consigned to flames and burnt down to ashes, the link between the soul and the body is completely broken and the soul is freed from its bondage with that body

Kapal Kriya

A few minutes after the pyre has been consigned to the flames, Kapal Kriya is performed. In this, one of the longer bamboos used in the Arthi is used to break the skull of the body. This is done by the person doing the cremation. There are many reasons why this is done:

- The Skull bone is a very hard bone. Once it is broken, its easy for it to burn with the rest of the body.
- Many occult practitioners prey around Cremation grounds for fresh spirits (of the recent dead) to “use”. A spirit cannot be used endlessly by the occultists so Cremation grounds are frequented by them. Skull is an effective way and tool for them to do what they are doing. If the skull is broken, it is of no use to them. If the skull is not broken and has not burnt along with the body, then the spirit of the dead is susceptible to the malafides of the occultists.
- Forehead is where the soul of the dead is supposed to be concentrated. Once broken, the soul is freed from the body and starts the search for the next body.

Besides this, having gone through the experience with both my parents, I can say that this one act breaks all the attachment to the deceased. Before doing it, you shiver – for this person was alive just a few hours back – but once you hit the skull, you know what burns in front of you, is after all just a body. All attachments are gone.

Attachment with the deceased by those who are left behind probably has the same effect as the attachment that the deceased’s soul may have for them. So, breaking the attachments of the loved ones left behind is an important step in breaking the departed soul free.

Before leaving Cremation Ground

Make sure you do the following, before you come out of the Cremation Ground:

- Get the receipt from the office to help you get the Death certificate. This will be the most important document for you in the process of getting the Death Certificate in India.
- Discuss the time for coming for collecting the last remains (bones – or phool, meaning flowers, as they are called). Usually one comes after a day after next in the morning – mostly before 9 am – to do that.
- Announce the time for collecting the last remains and the next ceremony to all those who have collected so they can plan their week/s ahead accordingly.

Remember that leafy vegetable? Now is the time for that. Everyone from the family takes a few leaves each and throws it back over the head, without looking back, praying for a happy life and prosperous life ahead. The rest of the vegetable can be left for cow to finish.

=============== ==================

Beyond the Cremation, the last rites are done at Haridwar (mostly), although some parts can be done in Kurukshetra as well. Here is an outline of the main steps:

Following the rites most closely, you should plan on going to Haridwar 10 days AFTER the Cremation. Plan on procuring the ashes early morning from the Cremation Ground before you leave for Haridwar. I would suggest to hire a car. Remember not to put the ashes down anywhere, keep holding it or put it on the dashboard if you want, but not on the ground.

The first act of immersing the ashes in Ganga is done in Kankhal near Haridwar. The exact place is “Sati Ghat”. Go there are there will be the Pundits who will help you. They will ask you for your family and where they belong. The rites here are linked to the next step in Haridwar at Har Ki Paudi, where you make an entry in the family register.

REMEMBER: for the Pundits in this place, you are a source of income and no more than a customer whose deep pockets they are after and what better time than the death of their loved ones. They will use your love for the deceased and your superstition AGAINST you.. to the hilt! So, while doing what you have to do, remember to not give into the various cries for more money and the emotional blackmail that goes along with that.

I would pay no more than Rs 500 to the Pundit for the ceremony here. When you go to the steps to immerse the ashes (bones) in Ganga, remember that (i) water flow is fast and you don’t want to fall into that place, and (ii) the step under the water are usually very slippery, so be very aware!

After this, head for Haridwar (Har ki Paudi). There you will try to locate the Pundit who has your family tree. Before heading off to Haridwar, remember to get the details – your grand father’s name, his father’s name. Which city they lived in and which street or colony (mohalla). All the details are kept and locatable if you know enough details.

The Pundit who locates your details will also perform your ceremony. The ceremony can take some half an hour to an hour.

After the ceremony you should take a small bath in the Ganga. The payment here to the Pundit and his assistants may be no more than Rs 500-800. Make sure you do NOT give into the emotional blackmail.

We thought it was FAR better to give the money to people who took care of my Mother during her illness than to the Pundits.

This ceremony is the last on this trip and make sure when you need to do the last set of Pujas on the 13th day.

Before you leave the Har ki Paudi, remember to look for the Desi Ghee ki Puris at a shop there.. it is probably the best I have ever had! Great eating place if you are into road-side stuff!

  • Anonymous

    I’m doing a research essay for religious studies on Hinduism and their funeral rituals within the traditional and contemporary setting.
    It sounds like the funeral you had for your mom was very traditional. Would you say that the traditional and contemporary funerals are pretty much the same? In my research i’ve got that the two are very similar other than the fact that Kapal Kriya is not always performed. But now i’m confused because in regards to your blog it was performed.
    If you wouldn’t mind answering these questions I would love the input.

  • Anonymous

    I’m doing a research essay for religious studies on Hinduism and their funeral rituals within the traditional and contemporary setting.
    It sounds like the funeral you had for your mom was very traditional. Would you say that the traditional and contemporary funerals are pretty much the same? In my research i’ve got that the two are very similar other than the fact that Kapal Kriya is not always performed. But now i’m confused because in regards to your blog it was performed.
    If you wouldn’t mind answering these questions I would love the input.

  • Desh

    Hi there – thanks for visiting and the questions. As far as the Kapal kriya is concerned, I think its done all the time. I have personally never seen a cremation without Kapal Kriya. Maybe its dependent on regions, but its a smart thing to do and I guess that’s why it was added in. Feel free to email me from the contact page with any more questions and discuss it more on a personal basis if you want. I would surely be interested to know the outcome of your research if you could share it.

  • Desh

    Hi there – thanks for visiting and the questions. As far as the Kapal kriya is concerned, I think its done all the time. I have personally never seen a cremation without Kapal Kriya. Maybe its dependent on regions, but its a smart thing to do and I guess that’s why it was added in. Feel free to email me from the contact page with any more questions and discuss it more on a personal basis if you want. I would surely be interested to know the outcome of your research if you could share it.

  • Anonymous

    I done my dad’s cremation at kakinada AP india, but we brothers didn’t done KAPAL KRIYA as that pundit ji,(KISHTACHARLU) didnt bother to perform all these in slow and steady manner. We just coughed up nearly 25000/- as his fees for doing some poojas where his policy and rules kept changing from day 1 to day 13.

  • Anonymous

    I done my dad’s cremation at kakinada AP india, but we brothers didn’t done KAPAL KRIYA as that pundit ji,(KISHTACHARLU) didnt bother to perform all these in slow and steady manner. We just coughed up nearly 25000/- as his fees for doing some poojas where his policy and rules kept changing from day 1 to day 13.

  • sunil

    Desh:
    Help me with the following if you have researched it:
    I am in the US and my father – who was in the US passed away on the 10th.
    He died in Hospital and thus te body was not lowered to the floor -nor were we allowed to burn a diya.
    The body, after an autopsy, was released only to a registered mortuary and we had to wait 4 days before a certificate was issued by the Court.
    We cremated him therefore on the 15th in California. His cremation was as per US laws and thus we could NOT use bamboo or hay, but had to use a conventional casket (from poplar wood), which was incenerated in a mechanical crematory. No breaking of the skull was allowed. However, a priest did perform the prayers as his body lay in the chapel at the mortuary. I am the son (only son) and thus was given a glass of water, to carry on my right shoulder, and using rose petals, circumbulated 3 times (clockwise, starting from feet), and sprinkled water from the glass over my left shoulder. A small havan, with sandal wood was created by the priest and this havan, along with the casket was placed in the incenerator and the whole casket burned.
    Kirya/Pagri havan is now planned for the 22nd (13th day after death) at 5pm (dusk). This havan is planned to be held at the Hindu Temple. The same Priest shall perform a havan (one hour affair), and a pagri shall be draped on my head. A modest dinner will follow.
    My questions:
    Was the above procedure pure, correct and completed as per Hindu custom?
    How many days after the cremation MUST we proceed to Haridwar and immerse the ashes in the Ganges?
    Who all can accompany me to Haridwar? My Mother? My two sisters?
    How do we locate our Panda before proceeding there?
    How many days are we supposed to be there?
    What offerings are a MUST when at har-ki-pauri?
    is there a fixed time/hour when the immersion is made?
    Must I bathe in the river at the Ghat? I am told it is polluted and dirty?
    Are we required to repeat any of the rituals on arriving in India?
    Should we hold another havan after returning from Haridwar?
    I am told that the ashes should NOT touch the ground – and thus can we book them as ‘personal luggage” for the flight? or must we carry it only in our hand?
    I am told we cannot go ‘home’ in India or here in the US, with the ashes – and thus must proceed directly from the airport to Haridwar – is this correct?
    If my mother cannot go when I go to Haridwar (which I am planning to go on the 25th), is it acceptable to take 2-sets of ashes to Haridwar and at different times?
    Any other pearls of wisdom you can add to make this ritual proper for me?

    Sunil

  • sunil

    Desh:
    Help me with the following if you have researched it:
    I am in the US and my father – who was in the US passed away on the 10th.
    He died in Hospital and thus te body was not lowered to the floor -nor were we allowed to burn a diya.
    The body, after an autopsy, was released only to a registered mortuary and we had to wait 4 days before a certificate was issued by the Court.
    We cremated him therefore on the 15th in California. His cremation was as per US laws and thus we could NOT use bamboo or hay, but had to use a conventional casket (from poplar wood), which was incenerated in a mechanical crematory. No breaking of the skull was allowed. However, a priest did perform the prayers as his body lay in the chapel at the mortuary. I am the son (only son) and thus was given a glass of water, to carry on my right shoulder, and using rose petals, circumbulated 3 times (clockwise, starting from feet), and sprinkled water from the glass over my left shoulder. A small havan, with sandal wood was created by the priest and this havan, along with the casket was placed in the incenerator and the whole casket burned.
    Kirya/Pagri havan is now planned for the 22nd (13th day after death) at 5pm (dusk). This havan is planned to be held at the Hindu Temple. The same Priest shall perform a havan (one hour affair), and a pagri shall be draped on my head. A modest dinner will follow.
    My questions:
    Was the above procedure pure, correct and completed as per Hindu custom?
    How many days after the cremation MUST we proceed to Haridwar and immerse the ashes in the Ganges?
    Who all can accompany me to Haridwar? My Mother? My two sisters?
    How do we locate our Panda before proceeding there?
    How many days are we supposed to be there?
    What offerings are a MUST when at har-ki-pauri?
    is there a fixed time/hour when the immersion is made?
    Must I bathe in the river at the Ghat? I am told it is polluted and dirty?
    Are we required to repeat any of the rituals on arriving in India?
    Should we hold another havan after returning from Haridwar?
    I am told that the ashes should NOT touch the ground – and thus can we book them as ‘personal luggage” for the flight? or must we carry it only in our hand?
    I am told we cannot go ‘home’ in India or here in the US, with the ashes – and thus must proceed directly from the airport to Haridwar – is this correct?
    If my mother cannot go when I go to Haridwar (which I am planning to go on the 25th), is it acceptable to take 2-sets of ashes to Haridwar and at different times?
    Any other pearls of wisdom you can add to make this ritual proper for me?

    Sunil

  • Desh

    Sunil – first of all, my condolences on your father’s death! I know how it is, but one has to endure it.

    Your questions are commented below. I am not a very learned fellow, but I will tell you based on my experience and intelligence.

    Was the above procedure pure, correct and completed as per Hindu custom?

    Indian customs were made by the Yogis, not for all the circumstances – but for the average ones. Meaning not every soul would need to be released in a complete manner.. some may be already enlightened or so close that it really doesn’t matter. Instead of sticking by the rituals despite the issues around you, if I were you, I would concentrate on the intent. For example, if you couldn’t light diya, I would focus my thoughts and energies in suggesting to the soul to move to the light around it.. and go on its journey.. suggesting that despite the death, the people left behind were fine, comfortable and living well. The attachment is a soul’s worst hindrance.. from both the sides (its and the people left behind).

    How many days after the cremation MUST we proceed to Haridwar and immerse the ashes in the Ganges?

    We went early.. but they say it should be after 13th.

    Who all can accompany me to Haridwar? My Mother? My two sisters?

    Yes, they can.. you don’t have to put the ashes container on the ground… so make sure there are enough of you to take turns if one needs to go to the bathroom. Take a car from Delhi.. that’s the easiest.

    How do we locate our Panda before proceeding there?

    That’s tough. you will have to ask.. but DON’T PAY ANYONE until he shows you your family’s history.

    How many days are we supposed to be there?

    you can do it all within a day (a few hours) and be back

    What offerings are a MUST when at har-ki-pauri?

    Nothing much.. its all set.. the pundit will tell you and you do it.. they will emotionally blackmail you.. but DON’T PAY more than Rs 200.

    is there a fixed time/hour when the immersion is made?

    Yes, before dusk.. try to make sure you can do all that around 3 pm or so.. so you will have time to return

    Must I bathe in the river at the Ghat? I am told it is polluted and dirty?

    Yes, you can bathe. No its ain’t that bad. Just do a quick one.. in and out.. not much.

    Are we required to repeat any of the rituals on arriving in India?

    Not the ones done here. I would still check with your family pundit.

    Should we hold another havan after returning from Haridwar?

    If you want to.. its just for your own shuddi – or peace of mind and atmosphere around you.

    I am told that the ashes should NOT touch the ground – and thus can we book them as ‘personal luggage” for the flight? or must we carry it only in our hand?

    Carry it in your hands if you can..

    I am told we cannot go ‘home’ in India or here in the US, with the ashes – and thus must proceed directly from the airport to Haridwar – is this correct?

    That’s correct. So, have someone book a car there.. so you go right away.

    If my mother cannot go when I go to Haridwar (which I am planning to go on the 25th), is it acceptable to take 2-sets of ashes to Haridwar and at different times?

    No, I don’t think that would be helpful – let the person go. In my opinion, the SOLE GOAL should be now to see the soul be free… your love/attachment to it has no meaning nor does it help the soul. It simply hinders it and just satisfies your ego.

    Any other pearls of wisdom you can add to make this ritual proper for me?

    Read Gita if you can… I find it very soothing. Contemplate on it. Also, keep your focus LASER SHARP on just one thing – liberation of the soul.. NOTHING else counts now. Absolutely NOTHING. Your sorrow is because of breaking of attachment.. if your love were to truly be shown.. then that love should be helping the departed soul be free…

    And don’t succumb to the blackmail of the pundits.

  • Desh

    Sunil – first of all, my condolences on your father’s death! I know how it is, but one has to endure it.

    Your questions are commented below. I am not a very learned fellow, but I will tell you based on my experience and intelligence.

    Was the above procedure pure, correct and completed as per Hindu custom?

    Indian customs were made by the Yogis, not for all the circumstances – but for the average ones. Meaning not every soul would need to be released in a complete manner.. some may be already enlightened or so close that it really doesn’t matter. Instead of sticking by the rituals despite the issues around you, if I were you, I would concentrate on the intent. For example, if you couldn’t light diya, I would focus my thoughts and energies in suggesting to the soul to move to the light around it.. and go on its journey.. suggesting that despite the death, the people left behind were fine, comfortable and living well. The attachment is a soul’s worst hindrance.. from both the sides (its and the people left behind).

    How many days after the cremation MUST we proceed to Haridwar and immerse the ashes in the Ganges?

    We went early.. but they say it should be after 13th.

    Who all can accompany me to Haridwar? My Mother? My two sisters?

    Yes, they can.. you don’t have to put the ashes container on the ground… so make sure there are enough of you to take turns if one needs to go to the bathroom. Take a car from Delhi.. that’s the easiest.

    How do we locate our Panda before proceeding there?

    That’s tough. you will have to ask.. but DON’T PAY ANYONE until he shows you your family’s history.

    How many days are we supposed to be there?

    you can do it all within a day (a few hours) and be back

    What offerings are a MUST when at har-ki-pauri?

    Nothing much.. its all set.. the pundit will tell you and you do it.. they will emotionally blackmail you.. but DON’T PAY more than Rs 200.

    is there a fixed time/hour when the immersion is made?

    Yes, before dusk.. try to make sure you can do all that around 3 pm or so.. so you will have time to return

    Must I bathe in the river at the Ghat? I am told it is polluted and dirty?

    Yes, you can bathe. No its ain’t that bad. Just do a quick one.. in and out.. not much.

    Are we required to repeat any of the rituals on arriving in India?

    Not the ones done here. I would still check with your family pundit.

    Should we hold another havan after returning from Haridwar?

    If you want to.. its just for your own shuddi – or peace of mind and atmosphere around you.

    I am told that the ashes should NOT touch the ground – and thus can we book them as ‘personal luggage” for the flight? or must we carry it only in our hand?

    Carry it in your hands if you can..

    I am told we cannot go ‘home’ in India or here in the US, with the ashes – and thus must proceed directly from the airport to Haridwar – is this correct?

    That’s correct. So, have someone book a car there.. so you go right away.

    If my mother cannot go when I go to Haridwar (which I am planning to go on the 25th), is it acceptable to take 2-sets of ashes to Haridwar and at different times?

    No, I don’t think that would be helpful – let the person go. In my opinion, the SOLE GOAL should be now to see the soul be free… your love/attachment to it has no meaning nor does it help the soul. It simply hinders it and just satisfies your ego.

    Any other pearls of wisdom you can add to make this ritual proper for me?

    Read Gita if you can… I find it very soothing. Contemplate on it. Also, keep your focus LASER SHARP on just one thing – liberation of the soul.. NOTHING else counts now. Absolutely NOTHING. Your sorrow is because of breaking of attachment.. if your love were to truly be shown.. then that love should be helping the departed soul be free…

    And don’t succumb to the blackmail of the pundits.

  • Rahul Bizmoney

    Dear Desh Sir,
    I am 24 years old and the only one to take care of my family, may father is in the last stage of cancer and as per doctors we don’t have much time ? My father wanted to be cremated in Haridwar (he told me when he could speak), but the pujas on the 13th day has to happen in Jhansi where all my relatives are. Sir can u tell me if it is possible and do u know the place in Haridwar where cremation happens ?
    Regards,
    RD

  • Desh Kapoor

    Rahul – Sorry to hear about your Dad… I am not a rituals expert but the Haridwar rituals are done at Sati Ghat first.. and then you proceed to Har ki Pauri – which is the main Ganga ghat in Haridwar. Everyone knows it there.. so just ask.

    The 13th is generally done at home. People do havan and puja primarily. For most part its a very “family-members only” ceremony. It is to bring peace to the family and help them come to terms with the departing of the soul and move on in life.

    Hope that helps?

  • Missamy117

    Thankyou for sharing your story. When a hindu mother dies in usa. What are the rituals for her adult sons to follow as far as working, being social, etc. Is there a time limit like 3 weeks they cannot see their freinds, etc?

  • Desh

    Missamy – Again as I have said, I am no expert at rituals – but I will give you my perspective. Rituals in Hinduism in terms of mourning time are designed to reduce the pain and suffering of those left behind. 13 days are ideal time, given the recitations of specific scriptures to gradually reduce it all.

    I know some people do wait for 3 weeks for doing anything “good” or auspicious, but as far as meeting friends and being social is concerned, I think its a personal matter. Whenever you feel “good enough” you may do so. I have done the same way.

    My thought is that whatever ritual we follow, we should always look at how it can benefit the soul which has just left. And I firmly believe that undue mourning is hardly good for the departed soul. We should let it go.. and focus more on how to help its move to the higher levels.

  • Babu Santhanam

    Sir,
    In your note it says that the son-in-law can perform the last rites.  … I need your advise on the same …
    My father-in-law is on the death bed due to cancer.  I have been told that as i had lost my father only 5 months ago i cannot perform the last rites of my father-in-law if and when the time comes.  Is this true …
    Thanks
    Babu

  • Anusharkrishnan

    sir,
    i have a question, my husband’s horoscope shows that he will have to perform the last rites in 2& half years time. I asked the person who said this to me that if my husband has to perform the last rites then it means it has to be either me or my child, he said NO to both, then what else is the possibility since he is the second son, & as per our custom the elder son always does the last rite for the parents
    Please reply

  • Chaturvedi Vivek86

    Sir,
    I would like to know whether rites can only performed my male members?Female has no right to perform rites for her loved one?What if family has no close male members?
    Thanks
    Vivek Chaturvedi

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  • Utkarsh

    Thanks for this article. It has really helped.

    • admin

      You are welcome, Utkarsh. Hope all is well.


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