Thirty-three years ago, the Patels moved from Mumbai, India, seeking a new life and greater opportunities for their children. A man with great entrepreneurial instincts, Ram Patel owned several businesses in his adopted homeland and saw to it that his children attended the best schools. He died when he was 68.
In keeping with Hindu tradition, Ram's body would be cremated as part of his funeral. But unlike many westerners, the cremation would be far from a simple direct cremation without ceremony. Within an hour of his death, Ram's sons and family began making plans for the important rituals that would help them observe the customs of their family, community and faith. The Patels hired cooks and cleaners to keep food available and to see to it that the house was ready for the many guests who would be coming and going over the next few days.
Living in an urban western community, some traditional Hindu rites required modification. When Ram's father died in India many years ago, for example, his cremation was performed on an open funeral pyre near the Ganges River to facilitate the completion of the rituals. Ram's body, however, was taken to a local funeral home familiar with Hindu customs where he was bathed by men from the community and dressed in a simple white tunic and trousers.
That evening, family and friends came to the funeral home to pay their respects and each placed a flower in his casket. The funeral directors set Ram's casket several feet from the chapel wall to better allow members of the community who wanted to walk in a circle around it as part of their mourning custom. As is the custom among many Hindu families, Ram's family and other members of the community wore white; his business associates had learned from the funeral home that it was best not to wear black or other dark colors, but rather, to choose lighter colored clothing for the funeral rituals.
The following morning, Ram's funeral began with family and guests seated on the floor of the chapel. Serving a large segment of the Hindu community in its community, this funeral home had long ago removed pews from its chapel and replaced them with individual chairs, which had nearly all been removed for the funeral. Even at Ram's home, sleeping arrangements were altered as bed mattresses were moved to the floor for the duration of the mourning period. After a priest read from the Bhagavad Gita and offered prayers to the north, east, south and west, the mourners carried Ram's casket from the chapel to the waiting hearse.
The funeral procession wound through the city's streets, past the Patel's home and the various businesses in which the family was engaged, until at last, the procession arrived at the crematory. A brief ceremony inside the crematory concluded with a bit of sandalwood paste being placed on the simple wooden casket. In the same way Ram had held the torch to his father's funeral pyre many years earlier, his oldest son pushed the button to start the cremation process for Ram.
By the time the family and friends arrived back at the family home the funeral helpers had prepared food for all. Before anyone ate, however, all family members bathed and changed clothes, washing away the ritual impurity of death and symbolizing the beginning of a new life without their husband and father. In the living room, an easel stood with a large portrait of Ram, encircled with dried flowers. For the next twelve days, prayers were offered at sunrise and sunset each day, culminating with a service led by their priest in their family home.
One year after Ram's death, his family and friends gathered again for a ceremony to mark the official end of their mourning. The Shradh ceremony, arranged by Ram's sons and led by the family priest, ended when the sons went to an inner city area and provided food to homeless men and women. In so doing, the family of Ram Patel kept an ancient Indian Hindu custom of feeding the poor in his memory.
While the Patel's story is not universal, it includes many elements common to Hindu funerals. The following resources will provide additional information.
- Hindu Universe
- Bhaskarananda, S. (2002). The Essentials of Hinduism: A Comprehensive Overview of the World's Oldest Religion. Seattle, WA: Viveka Press.
- Firth, S. (1997). Dying, Death and Bereavement in a British Hindu Community. London: Peeters.
- Laungani, P. (1997). Death in a Hindu Family. In C. M. Parkes, P. Laungani & B. Young (Eds.), Death and Bereavement Across Cultures (pp. 52-72). London: Routledge.