America is a diverse place, filled with people from different cultures and practicing a variety of religions, of which Hinduism is one. Hinduism is thought to be, at minimum, 3,500 years old. As such, it is rich with rituals, ceremonies, and traditions that help people deal with many aspects of life, including death. If you have been invited to participate in the funeral of someone who practiced this religion, here’s what you need to know to avoid embarrassing yourself or causing distress to the mourning family with an unintended faux pas.
What to Wear
In America, it is customary to wear black to funerals to match the somberness of the proceedings. However, it is inappropriate to wear this color at Hindu funerals because it indicates mourning which, in this religion, is considered disrespectful to the deceased. This is because reincarnation—the passing of the soul to its next life—is one of the primary tenets of Hinduism. The person’s death is seen as a happy event rather than a sad one as it is believed the individual will eventually live again. Instead, attendees should wear white, a color that denotes purity and respect.
Also contrary to western funeral wear that tends to be formal, the clothing you wear to a Hindu funeral should be casual and modest. Wearing clothing that is showy, flashy, fancy, or otherwise draws attention is considered rude. Your footwear should also be casual (e.g. sandals or slip-on shoes) because shoes are generally taken off prior to entering the place where the viewing service will be held.
It’s important to note that you should wear clothes that are easily washed or bring a change of clothing. In the Hindu religion, things associated with death are considered impure. Therefore, when you leave the funeral, you may be required to wash your clothing to purify them or throw them away if you will be going to the home of someone who practices Hinduism.
If you are of a different faith—or no faith at all—your participation in the ceremony will be limited to viewing the body when the times comes to pay your respects, though you can participate in any portion of the ceremony that doesn’t interfere with your faith. Otherwise, you will be expected to sit quietly while friends and family members complete the ceremony, which typically involves chanting mantras or reciting hymns.
Hindus typically put the body on display in an open casket surrounded by flowers. As noted, you can view the decedent. However, it’s critical that you do not touch him or her as this is considered unclean and disrespectful. Additionally, it’s okay to express sadness at the person’s passing, but your reactions should be muted and modest. The focus of the funeral is to allow the decedent to pass peacefully to his or her next life. Excessive displays of emotion (e.g. loud crying or wailing) are unacceptable and you may be asked to leave.
Lastly, do not bring any recording devices such as cameras or tape recorders, and do not use your phone to take pictures during the proceedings.
After the Wake
Hindus cremate their loved ones rather than bury them. At the cremation site, friends and family typically perform one last ceremony before the decedent is committed to the fire. If you are not Hindu, you won’t be expected to participate, just sit or stand quietly to the side.
However, after the funeral is done, you may be asked to do a ritual cleansing if you will be going to the home of a Hindu person. As noted previously, things that have been in “contact’ with the dead is considered impure. The ceremony typically involves taking a bath and washing/discarding your funeral clothing, but may also include some prayers depending on the family. If the decedent’s body was displayed in the home, a priest may come by to bless and cleanse the house.
Hindu funerals are generally straightforward, as people in the religion like to keep the passing of a loved one as simple as possible. If you’re uncertain about what to do, it’s best to discuss talk to someone familiar with the religion, such as a Hindu priest, the decedent’s loved ones, or a funeral director with experience handling Hindu funerals.