‘Who would light my funeral pyre?’ This question crossed my dad’s mind while we were growing up. In Hinduism, it’s customary for sons to do end-of-life rituals for their parents. But my dad had two daughters, and no sons.
But things changed with time. Some years back, during his terminal illness, it became obvious that his daughters would be the ones to carry out his antim sanskar (last rites).
Papa’s Antim Sanskar: A Journey to New Beginnings
The antim sanskar includes all rites and rituals performed just before, during, and after death. It is crucial for the attainment of moksha—liberation from the endless cycle of death and rebirth.
Hindus believe that feelings and thoughts at the time of death determine the soul’s subsequent fate. When we sensed his end was near, I began reading the verses from the Gita, the holy Hindu scripture to maintain our purity of thought. Meanwhile, my sister fed Papa Ganga jal (sacred water from the River Ganges), essential for the soul’s easy departure from the sharir—the body.
It was painful to see Papa take his last breaths. But he was fortunate to be surrounded by loved ones in his last moments, and I was fortunate to have helped him along his journey through these pre-death rituals.
The Final Rites
After Papa’s death, I became the chief mourner and assumed the responsibility of his last sanskar. It was now my responsibility to light his funeral pyre and carry out the post-cremation rituals.
According to Hindu beliefs, one should cremate the body in the daylight after death. But, since we were waiting for close family members to travel to the ceremony from afar, we ordered a mobile mortuary to preserve the body. Meanwhile, we kept a diya, a small oil lamp lit next to him to commemorate his presence.
Making funeral preparations was simultaneously the most rewarding and challenging experience of my life, but I was lucky to have so many helping hands through the process of organizing the rituals.
In India, arranging the last rites and rituals is a community affair. Neighbours and relatives help the bereaved family members, shouldering the burden and the grief. Some members contacted the priest, while others ordered mattresses to accommodate the visitors. Some arranged food for our family. We never felt alone.
There was a constant flow of visitors upon hearing the news of Papa’s death, and seeing familiar faces was comforting as we mourned and remembered him. It was nice to cherish the relationships nurtured by my parents.
The following morning, the men gave Papa a ritual bath and dressed him in a fresh white kurta-pajama, which is a traditional attire. We then garlanded him with fragrant flowers as Hindus honour the deceased like a God—adorned with flowers.
While I performed the necessary rituals, we kept the shav (body) in the courtyard for antim darshan (the final viewing). We hugged and kissed him for the last time. A sizeable crowd had assembled to extend their respects and some family members draped Papa’s body with shawls as a mark of respect.
My eyes were welling up with tears, but performing a vital life-cycle ceremony brought me peace. Papa was now ready for the next journey.
The Last Journey
We transferred the shav in a van for its antim yatra (last journey) to the crematorium by securing it to an arthi (the bier). It is customary for Hindus to support an arthi on the shoulders. The male members took turns carrying it to the cremation site while chanting Ram naam satya hai (Ram’s name is the only truth) in unison—remembering God in happiness and sorrow.
It was time to do the agni sanskar—to offer the body to the fire—the crucial Hindu death ritual. I lit the wooden pyre with a heavy heart. I saw his flesh burning, leaving behind smoke and ashes.
Midway through the cremation process, I performed kapal kriya, cracking the skull with a long stick in the middle to release the soul. I was relieved to have fulfilled my most important duty by enabling his soul to travel to heaven. The following morning, I collected Papa’s remains. This tradition is called the phul chugna ceremony in parts of northern India, which roughly translates to bone-gathering.
On the fourth day following his death, we hosted Papa’s chautha (memorial service). Many relatives who couldn’t make it to the cremation service were able to join us. Listening to the holy verses in the company of loved ones while praying for his departed soul was spiritually elevating.
After the memorial service, we travelled to Haridwar (an ancient city and important Hindu pilgrimage site in North India’s Uttarakhand state) to submerge Papa’s remains in the holy water of the Ganga. According to Hindu mythology, when the asthi (ashes) touch the Ganga, the dead attain eternal salvation.
I scattered Papa’s ashes in the Ganga, ritually mixing his ashes with the ancestors, while the tirath purohit (pilgrimage priest) recited mantras.
The Journey’s End
After spreading, papa’s ashes, we headed to update our genealogical records. We traversed the narrow lanes of the sacred city to locate our tirath purohit’s office. He asked for our gotra (clan’s name) and retrieved a vahi (genealogical register) he has safeguarded for generations. Our fatigued faces lit up at the sight of these records written in special ink. We even discovered an entry in English made by my grandfather many decades ago. We made our respective entries and left the place while imprinting these rituals into our memories and hearts.
Performing sanskar was a profound way of nurturing Papa in death, just as I had nurtured him in life. I was also keeping a family tradition alive, an experience I shared with my daughter and nephew.
Last rites and rituals reveal much about life and the relationships we nurture. Although I didn’t always understand the deeper meanings behind the rituals I performed, I knew that they extended love and respect to the departed soul.
Hindu rituals and traditions offer shanti (peace) to both the dead and the grieving family. What matters is the shraddha (faith) with which we perform the rituals.