Hinduism, Grief and the Pandemic

By Alexandra Grenier

For many Quebecers, Christian funeral rites hold no secrets. But what about other religions? The Social Eyes presents an introduction to Hindu funeral rites and traditions.

According to the 2011 National Household Survey, Canada counted more than 500,000 Hindus. And this number is growing fast – for as Diana Dimitrova, a professor in the religious studies faculty of the Université de Montréal sees it, in ten years this number will surpass 2 million.

Québec’s first Hindu temple was built in the 1980s on Bellechasse Street in Montreal. It is still in operation.

Funeral Rites

Cremation holds a very important place in Hinduism. After death it is customary to incinerate the deceased’s remains. The only people authorized to carry out this ritual are specific priests, always males. The family of the deceased is considered impure and has to undergo purification rites for 13 days before being allowed to rejoin society.

“With Covid-19,” Prof. Dimitrova explains, “a lot of people couldn’t participate in funeral rites. So it wasn’t possible for them to say goodbye to their loved ones.” Many attended funerals through videoconferences. Generally, one family member was allowed to be present, but had to dress in protective wear. “That made grieving and saying goodbye a lot heavier to bear,” she says.

Hindu cremation pyre

Before cremation takes place the body is wrapped in a white sheet, and then male loved ones take the body to the place where it will be cremated. Generally this step takes place near a river, preferably a sacred one, like the Ganges in India.

Normally only those 12 years of age and older can be cremated. In certain regions the minimum age for cremation is 5. Children under that age are generally buried or sometimes just thrown into the river, which can lead to some unpleasant sights. “In India, close to funeral spots along the rivers, you’ll see stray dogs eating children’s remains washed up on riverbanks. A lot of people in India find this situation deplorable,” Prof. Dimitrova says. Ashes from cremations are also thrown into the river.

Back to Basics

Hindus prefer to bring the remains back to India so that these rites can be done appropriately. But when that’s impossible, especially during a pandemic, people adjust. In Quebec and in the rest of Canada, some disposed of their loved one’s ashes in local waterways, like a river, says Prof. Dimitrova. “There’s been no study done on this, but we can say that some people do do this, even if they know it’s against the law and could pose an environmental problem.” Others save their loved one’s ashes for a future trip to India.

“India is their sacred country, and it’s where, in a best case scenario, they’d like to die in order to be saved. A lot of people give up everything and go back to India to wait to die.” Some people choose to commit suicide for religious reasons. That way they can be sure of being in the right place when they die.

Prof. Dimitrova says that these funeral rites can help assist loved ones to grieve the death, but they’re not designed for that. They’re mainly meant to allow the best rebirth for the deceased. “It’s very important to follow all the rites as far as possible. That way, the deceased can gain a better rebirth and maybe even escape the transmigration cycle, the SaṃsāraMokṣa, or liberation from the Saṃsāra, is the supreme goal of every Hindu.”

First seen on the Reflet de Société website, March 21, 2022.

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