Ethnicity Online

Cultural Awareness in Healthcare

Hindus: Death and the Dead

Death is a hugely significant life event in Hindu society. It leaves an individual with no more possible actions in this life, and signals either the attainment of moksha (liberation from samsara, the wheel of death and rebirth) or their continuation on the pilgrimage of life, leading to rebirth. Hindus prefer to die at home in the presence of their family and favourite household gods, or ishta-deva.

after death

The body of a Hindu should not be washed by hospital staff as the family will probably wish to do this themselves. In the meantime, the body should be wrapped in a clean white sheet. If the body has to be left alone, a light or a candle should be left burning near the head of the deceased as a mark of respect and to comfort their soul.

The many rituals that are associated with death are carried out to dispel the spiritual impurity of death, speed the dead on their journey and serve the ancestors with respect. Tulsi, a herb from the basil family, is used in many rituals, and may be placed in the mouth of the deceased to prevent the spirit from wandering before the body is burnt.

preparation of the body

The body of a Hindu is prepared for their funeral by first shaving the head, washing the body and anointing it with herbs, spices and scents to dispel any spiritual corruption. The thumbs are tied together, as are the big toes, to keep the limbs in place. A cloth is tied around the head and under the chin to keep the mouth closed. The family will then dress the body in clean clothes and finally wrap it in a cloth shroud. A widow may place her wedding pendant (tali) around her dead husband's neck to show the enduring nature of their bond.

If a Hindu patient dies in hospital, their family should be allowed space and privacy to carry out these rituals themselves.

burial or cremation

Hindus will want to return the body of their dead relative to the earth as quickly as possible – before the next sunset if they can. The traditional method of disposal is cremation at a local Hindu cremation ground. The ashes will be scattered at a later date into a river (preferably the River Ganges in India).

It is believed that cremation controls the physical and spiritual pollution of death and releases the atman (soul) from the body for the continuation of its journey.

The eldest son, or the eldest male in the family, will take a lead in the funeral arrangements of a parent, and will deal with all the paperwork.

Children who die before the age of about five may be buried instead of being cremated. Burial is also reserved for holy men and untouchables.

Brahmins are not involved in the disposal of bodies: the task is considered too polluting for someone whose status depends on the maintenance of their ritual spiritual purity.

organ donation

In general, there are no specific religious objections to the removal of organs from a body for transplant into another body. However, this is a relatively recent medical innovation and many Hindus may have serious questions about the process that will require answering with great sensitivity. It is believed that the atman resides equally in all organs of the body and so questions such as 'Will a transplanted organ that continues to live in another body hinder the deceased in their reincarnation?' might be asked. Many Hindus feel that the recipient of an organ will also receive a fragment of the atman of the deceased and take on their characteristics. The NHS Transplant Agency has devised a series of leaflets for religious groups about transplants that may help a family to understand the issues and make a decision.

post-mortem

Most Hindus will not object to compulsory post-mortems, providing all of the organs are returned to the body. A post-mortem should be carried out as soon as possible so that arrangements can be made for the funeral to take place quickly. However, it is important to discuss the issue with the family because it is unlikely that they will consent to a post-mortem unless it is legally required.

suicide

Hindus consider suicide to be a terrible act of self-harm, which goes against the concept of ahinsa, and believe that the negative karmic effects of suicide will have to be dealt with by the individual in future lives. It also brings disgrace on the individual's family.

mourning

Death causes a gulf between the family and its community, as they are touched with the spiritual impurity that is associated with death and the dead. After the funeral, the family will spend a period of time secluded from the rest of their community and purifying themselves and their home; they will not visit the temple or their friends during this time. The community will continue to show their concern and sympathy for the family by bringing gifts of food to the house, but will not enter until the family has been back to the temple.

This period can be as short as the time taken to cremate the body and dispose of the ashes, or it can last for considerably longer as the family mourns together. During this period, family members may be reluctant to leave the house to attend a clinic or hospital; thus, if there is a need to remain in touch with a Hindu family after a death, it is advisable that you consider visiting them at home.

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