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For Some, Cremation Isn't a Choice

By Linda Banks

 Pashupatinath - Cremations by Greg Willis

Image by Greg Willis - Pashupatinath Cremations*

Cremation is a choice available to North Americans, an alternative to traditional interment in a cemetery.  Increasingly, people of all religious beliefs are choosing to be cremated.  The cremated remains can be stored in memorial urns, shared in keepsake urns, worn in cremation jewelry, scattered or buried in bio-degradable urns.  According to the Cremation Association of North America (www.cremationassociation.org), more than a third of Americans now choose cremation, which is an increase of six percent since 1975. 

A Tradition and Culture of Cremation

For Hindus, however, cremation is more than a thoughtful choice made at the end of their life. Traditionally, all Hindus -- except babies, children, and saints -- are cremated.

Sanskaras are Hindu rites of passage, each of which acknowledges an important stage in a person’s life. Death is the final stage, and is recognized and celebrated in the same manner as other stages such as birth, initiation into a spiritual path and marriage.

Hindus believe in reincarnation. Upon death, they believe that the spirit passes through different planes of existence until finally, based on good and bad deeds done while alive, the spirit reincarnates into another body.  The spirit continues reincarnating to attain perfection.  The Hindu belief in reincarnation informs their rituals at time of death, as family members help prepare their deceased loved one for a next life. 

Cremation is believed to be an important part of the transition from life to death. When a body is burned on a pyre, the spirit escapes and the family of the deceased can celebrate their loved one’s moving on towards a next life. 

Cremation was referenced in the earliest Hindi scriptures, the Vedas.  The ancient texts contain hymns and incantations that tell the story of everyday life in ancient India four thousand years ago.  The Rig Veda, determined to be the oldest Veda, composed about 1500 B.C., includes references to cremation.  Scriptures from the Rig Veda read during cremation describing how Lord Agni, the Hindi God of Fire, will purify the dead body in preparation for its next destination.

Hindus believe that the funeral and cremation should take place as soon as possible after death.  A series of rites and rituals are performed upon death, led by the karta, the oldest son or other male relative.  Family members chant mantras, and scriptures are recited, while they wash the body with milk, yogurt, ghee, honey, and purified water in preparation for cremation. A garland of flowers is placed around the neck, and basil placed in the casket. Before the body is removed for cremation, many Hindus place rice balls near the casket.   

Historically, in India, cremations take place on the Ganges River, on a pyre built by the family, and the ashes immersed in the Holy River. For Hindus living outside of India, there are companies that will arrange for the shipment of the body to India and hold a traditional cremation and place the ashes in Ganges.  Today, open-air cremations are less frequent in Indian urban areas; however there are crematoriums in most major cities that conduct indoor cremations. Most crematories allow for services before the cremation and they permit family to be present.  Thus, most rituals can be performed and traditions observed.

There are many resources on the internet with information on Hinduism or assistance with planning a Hindu funeral, including http://hinduism.about.com/; www.hinduwebsite.com; www.hindunet.com; www.hinduismtoday.com.

*Image can be found athttp://bit.ly/1S6r3Sj

Linda Banks provided extended end-of-life care for her beloved Aunt who was like her mother. When her brother died suddenly last year, she was instrumental in orchestrating all of the details of his final wishes to be cremated. Linda has been an active blogger for ten years, including blogging about Willie Nelson and his family. Willie told her recently that he reads her blog every day. 

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