Time to Reform Cremation/Death Rites for Hindus in the US

By Kollengode S Venkataraman

e-mail:  ThePatrika@aol.com

Editor’s Note:  A slightly modified version of this article appeared in the April Issue of Hinduism Today.

Death rituals — burials and cremations or other practices — are perhaps more for the living left behind to come to terms with grief and get a cathartic relief at the irrevocability of the Final Exit. For people who pass on in their 80s and 90s, the death rites are also occasions for great celebrations for reminiscing the lives of the departed. After all, the departed would have seen so much of life’s ups and downs, very personal griefs, frustrations, disappointments, excitements, successes, failures, and touched the lives of many people in very many ways.

A large proportion of Hindus use cremation for taking care of the dead. A relatively small fraction of Hindus also use burials. Traditionally, if people die in the forenoon or early afternoon, the cremation was expected to be done before sun down. For Jews and Muslims too, traditionally, the burials must be done before sun set, not always possible today.

For the Hindus today in many places outside India, cremation or burial on the same day of the death is simply not feasible because of medicolegal requirements of hospitals, autopsy, death certificates, funeral homes’ requirements, etc. Typically, it takes two to three days to organize cremation in North America after the Final Exit. If long weekends intervene, cremation takes place only after four or five days after the death. This is the reality today.

Further complication with Hindu cremation is that we need a pandit or a purohit to do the death-related rites for several days after cremation. In olden days when our ancestors lived in villages, on the day after cremation, the ashes were gathered and were sprinkled into the river or ocean, or lakes. Afterwards, there were daily rites for the departed for the next several days, at the end of which the departed Jiva was ritually merged with the departed ancestors. All these are called Antyeshthi karmas (NOT pujas).

Then, on the 13th day in many cases, there is a formal puja invoking the blessings of Nature for people to come to terms with the death of the departed so that people can get on with their lives. This puja goes with various names in different parts of India. In cases where people in the prime of their lives suddenly die in accidents or under complicated medical conditions, getting on with their lives is not easy. It takes years to come to terms with cruel games Life/Fate/Bad Luck plays with people.

A great many variations are there in the details of the rites from region to region and even within the region in different families with customs evolving over several centuries, compounded by geographic isolation.

Even fifty years ago, for people who die after a long life, siblings and cousins, nephews and nieces, and grand-kids and also close friends assembled for the 13th day Pujas to joyfully reminisce the life of the departed.  There is a great fellowship and camaraderie in these celebrations.

The 13-day death rites and celebrations, which was OK during our countryside leisurely life, are simply not sustainable in today even in India, not to speak of Hindus living outside. There are several practical reasons: For starters, today, the members of the family are scattered globally. Further, people have only two weeks of paid vacations, and they have very busy work routines. Children need to go to schools and colleges. And people running shops or small businesses cannot afford to be away from their shops for long duration.

Today, relatives — sometimes even siblings — rarely participate in all the key events such as the cremation itself, immersion of the ashes, and the 10th and 13th day events. It simply is not possible in contemporary lifestyle.

The saddest part of the system as it exists today is that often the husband and wife, often in their 60s or even older, do the 9th and 10th day karmas (rites), and the 13th day puja all by themselves, or with very few people to give them emotional support.

A great opportunity is thus lost for the extended family members and friends to commiserate among themselves during such a somber and evocative occasion. We need to remember that after the death of aged parents, the siblings slowly and naturally drift away from each other in the normal course of the flow of Time.

So, the 13-day death rites even for observant Hindus, for all intents and purposes, are already modified to varying degrees to to accommodate  the present day constraints and lifestyles.

Need for Reform on Death Rites

Given our changed lifestyle today, it is time that we are honest to discuss in the open the need for reform on death rites. We need to come up with a set of shortened and reformed death rites that will be an alternative optional standard for all Hindus who cremate/bury the mortal remains of the departed Jiva.

In stating this, I am NOT suggesting any radical change.  Those who want to do in the traditional 13-day event may continue to do it that way.  However, for others who have other constraints as listed earlier, we can come up with death rites that can be done, say, within three days after the cremation, while still retaining the key elements of the 13-day events. Thus, the whole sequence will be completed within three (or four, or five) days after the cremation, which is a more manageable time-wise for all extended family members to participate.

A shortened death rites will greatly help all relatives to gather for all the death rites and observances and celebrate the life of the departed.

It is not fair to place the onus for shortening the rites on the individual Pandits/Purohits. They are already caught between a rock (their traditional training in pathashalas) and a hard place (their clients asking for all kinds of compromises). They have their own ethical codes that they do not want to drift too far away from unless they get social approval for the shortened version of death rites. We need to ask for it.

That is why we, the Hindu faithfuls, need to make an acceptable compromise on the core steps involved in death rites. Again, those who want to follow the 13-day practice, can continue to do so. We need to meld these rites into our contemporary lifestyle and fit them into 3 or 4 days after the day of cremation.  Are we ready for discussing this in the open?

Remember, the 3- or 4-day marriage events of the olden years has been seamlessly shortened to 1-day or even 1/2 day event today to fit our convenience.

Also, I heard in one lecture that even Manu in his smrti, has wisely stated that the codes he has given us need to be revised to adapt to the evolving lifestyles, much like constitutional amendments and changes in the laws we see today.   ♠


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