Hinduism and Bereavement

The Good Thinking team has produced this short guide to help anyone in the Hindu community across London who has lost a loved one, and to help health and care professionals who are supporting terminally ill patients of the Hindu faith.

“The soul is neither born, nor does it ever die; nor having once existed, does it ever cease to exist. The soul is unborn, eternal, immortal and primeval. It is not slain when the body is slain.”

Bhagavad Gita 2.20

Hindus believe that humans are in a continuous cycle of death and rebirth called samsara. When a person dies, their atman (spirit or soul) is reincarnated into a different physical body or life form (human, animal, insect or plant). They also believe that the soul’s next incarnation depends on the person’s karma (actions during their previous life). Ultimately, Hindus believe that through praxis, accumulation of good karma, and divine grace, moksha (liberation) can be achieved after death. Liberation is characterised as the attainment of the transcendent.

In all branches of Hinduism, family plays a key role in helping their loved one prepare for their death and rebirth. Certain rituals occur in the final moments, including:

  • Relatives may wish to sit at the patient’s bedside, sing bhajans (devotional songs), read sacred texts (e.g. from the Veda and Bhagavad Gita) and chant mantras. They may also ask for a Hindu priest to be present.
  • There may be a request to turn the patient’s bed so their head faces east or for the patient to be allowed to lie on the floor in the moments before death (so that they are close to mother earth and their soul can depart easily).

Caring for someone who is dying involves looking after their physical, emotional and spiritual needs.

It is important to identify a person’s religious inclinations at the start of their care and to find out what they need when approaching the end of life. If they are in hospital, it is helpful to inform the chaplain about their spiritual needs (with the patient’s permission).

Whilst it may be difficult to observe all Hindu death rituals in a hospital or care home, it is helpful to remember the following so that the patient can stay true to their faith:

  • Family is very important in Hinduism and healthcare decisions should be made together (normally with the most senior family member or eldest child).
  • After someone dies, their body should be treated with respect. The family should be consulted about any jewellery and religious symbols that need to be left in place.
  • The body of the deceased should be released as quickly as possible to enable the family to prepare for the funeral. Organ donation is accepted and encouraged in the Hindu faith and should be discussed with the family when appropriate.

Specific rituals depend on the patient’s affiliation to a particular Hindu tradition. However, often, a Hindu priest is asked to perform the antyeshti (funeral rites). The funeral directors will take the body for bathing, dressing and anointing with the permission and in the presence of chosen friends and relatives before the funeral rites take place.

Hindus generally prefer cremation over burial and the funeral usually takes place as soon as possible after death. Whilst it is favourable to do this within 24 hours, it is widely accepted amongst the Hindu community that the administrative process will take longer in the UK. Mourners customarily choose to wear simple, white clothing to the funeral, although this is not a religious requirement, and a Hindu priest usually leads the prayers.

Through cremation, the five basic elements, known as the panchbhut, are returned to the universe, signifying the maintenance of cosmic equilibrium. The ashes are usually scattered in a local river or the sea or maybe taken to India to be scattered in any one of the holy rivers, such as the Ganga.

The Hindu mourning period (sutak) typically lasts ten to thirteen days and includes various rituals, such as prayers and preparing certain foods, depending on the particular Hindu tradition of the family. Some Hindu traditions advocate devotional singing and scriptural recital during this time, rather than consider it a time of mourning; instead, realising it as a celebration that the soul has now been liberated and resides eternally in the abode of God. On the first anniversary of the death, a memorial event (shraaddha) is held to pay homage to the deceased.

Although Hindus take solace in their belief in reincarnation and liberation, they still experience grief. This may include feelings of shock, sadness, and even guilt.

Certain Hindus may choose to remain at home during the mourning period and not visit the temple. However, this is not a religious requirement and entering the temple during the mourning period is not forbidden. Friends and relatives may visit to offer condolences and participate in Hindu prayer and scriptural readings to provide solace to the bereaved.

If the bereaved person would rather speak to someone they don’t know or needs additional support, specialist bereavement support services (see below) are available.

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