Condolences for a Grieving Hindu Family

Somehow till now I’ve never had the occasion to comfort grieving friend or family member who happens to be Hindu.  When it happened last week I was at a bit of a loss as to how to properly comfort that person, properly honoring her departed father and not inadvertently doing something offensive in the meantime.

When hubby didn’t have the depth of advice I was looking for, I went to the usual plan B of canvassing friends and googling.  Given the general personal nature of the inquiry, and the fact that the family has been living in the states for a long time, friends were my best source.  Most mainly confirmed some of what I had found from Googling or somehow just knew (from novels, perhaps?), but one friend really came through with a great explanation (thanks SN!!).  Below I’ll share what I learned.

Background

  • It was our friend’s father who passed
  • Her parents grew up in India but have been in the states for some time (and she was born here in the states)
  • Her family is originally from North India, but our family and the majority of our friends happen to be from the South.
  • I knew they were doing some sort of puja but also knew they were doing services at an American funeral home and I wasn’t able to sort out what that really meant (I wasn’t going to grill my friend, and it was her fiance’s first experience with the Hindu service, too.)
  • All of this was happening geographically too far for me to just be with my friend.

General Tips

  • The formalities change depending upon region and level of society, but mostly its similar.
  • Like all cultures and traditions it’s important to meet the family of the dead in person, as soon as possible. Back in India, one can get away with not attending a happy occasion (like birth, wedding, etc.) but it isn’t taken well if one doesn’t attend the services and/or visit the family.
  • While in India you would likely visit the deceased  in their home, In the US, authorities don’t let a dead body stay in the home too long so you’ll likely be visiting during prescribed times in a funeral home.
  • At home, neighbors and close family take care of the funeral/ food until the small ceremony.
  • Once the dead body is moved and funeral is completed within 2-3 days they have a small ceremony at home for close family & friends and have lunch or dinner (this is usually done by the head of the family).
  • After the 11/13/15th day they will have a larger ceremony for the friends and people in the town by the family (Surname & daughter’s/sisters of the dead).
  • Surname bearing family will not celebrate any festivals in their home for one year from death.  So friends and family will invite the death members Surname family to their house for festivals.
  • At least in South India there are some restrictions for pregnant women: they are not supposed to attend funerals/pujas/services, they won’t cook food prior to the ceremony, and should not touch the dead.  Pregnant women can, however, buy or get food and it’s not considered to be doing an active formality and therefore allowed, at least on the day of the initial ceremony.
  • Pregnant women are not allowed to touch the dead
  • If you do attend services, traditionally white or light colors (not black, as in the US).  That said, the culture clash on this one is often understood by the family, particularly if they have been in the states for some time).  Traditionally, North Indians wear cotton white (women: saree or Indian pant/shirt, not new).  In South India, its very casual (i.e. whatever you wear daily, just nothing flashy).
  • A traditional offering to a grieving Hindu friend is one of a fresh fruit, but again, there is not a standard and it is best to check with the family if possible. Bringing homemade vegetarian food (without onion or garlic) is also customary.
  • It is NOT customary to bring or send flowers.  Flowers play an important role in the rituals (I have placed rose petals on a deceased uncle at US funeral home, and whole tops of flowers on the clear casket of a grandfather in India), and are not meant to be given to the grieving.
  • If you do visit the deceased, you need to return straight home to wash your clothes and body (including a head bath).  While this is a practical outgrowth of times when wakes meant extremely close proximity to the body and it’s possible contaminants, it is now more of a superstition and is still taken very seriously.  The grieving will also keep a small bowl of auspicious water by the door to symbolically wash as they enter their home.  [I need more information on this one.  What is in the water? For how long is it there? What is the actual ritual?]

If you have any other rituals or traditions can you share in terms of mourning the death of a Hindu person, please share, particularly if you know more about the last bullet point!

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