The Funeral Ritual
What are the most common Hindu funeral practices and ways of grieving? For the people of Vedic times, the future life was a place where those who had satisfied the gods through the performance of sacrifices and living their lives according to the expected codes enjoyed pleasures. On a more sophisticated level, death was equated with a state of nonexistence (asat).
As a man was born in impurity, so he died in impurity. According to the Sacred Law, mourners must avoid all close contact with outsiders for fear of carrying pollution; they must submit to rigid dietary restrictions and sleep on the ground. They must not shave their hair or worship the gods. The candelas, who had the duty of laying out and shrouding the body and carrying it to the cremation ground, were the most inauspicious of creatures and the lowest of the low.
The funeral ceremony (antyesti) was the last of the many sacraments that marked the stages of a man's life. According to the ancient custom, the corpse was carried to the burning ground as soon as possible after death, followed by the mourners, the eldest son leading the funeral procession. The body was cremated to the accompaniment of sacred texts. The mourners went around the pyre, counterclockwise, then bathed in the nearest river, tank, lake, or well. The mourners returned home led by the youngest son.
On the third day after the cremation, the charred bones were gathered and thrown into a river, preferably the Ganges. For ten days after the cremation, libations of water were poured for the dead, and offerings of rice balls and vessels of milk were made for him.
Upon dying, a man's soul became a miserable ghost (preta), unable to pass on to the “World of the Fathers” or to a new birth, and liable to do harm to the surviving relatives. With the performance of the last antyesti rite on the tenth day, it acquired a subtle body with which to continue its journey, speeded on its way and nourished in the afterlife by the sraddha ceremonies. With the tenth day, the mourners ceased to be impure and resumed their normal lives.