Antyesti means “last sacrifice”, and refers to the funeral rites for the dead in Hinduism. This rite of passage is one of traditional Saṃskāras in the life of a Hindu. It is also referred to as Antima Sanskar, Antya-kriya, Anvarohanyya, or as Vahni Sanskara.
The details of the Antyesti ceremony depends on the region, caste, gender and age of the dead.
The Antyesti rite of passage is structured around the premise in ancient literature of Hinduism that the microcosm of all living beings is a reflection of a macrocosm of the universe. The soul is the essence and immortal that is released at the Antyeshti ritual, but both the body and the universe are vehicles and transitory in various schools of Hinduism. The human body and the universe consist of five elements in Hindu texts – air, water, fire, earth and space. The last rite of passage returns the body to the five elements and its origins. The roots of this belief are found in the Vedas.
The last rites are usually completed within a day of death. While practices vary among sects, generally, his or her body is washed, wrapped in white cloth, if the dead is a man or a widow, or red cloth, if it is a woman whose husband is still alive, the big toes are tied together with a string and a Tilak (red, yellow or white mark) is placed on the forehead. The dead adult’s body is carried to the cremation ground near a river or water, by family and friends, and placed on a pyre with feet facing south.
The eldest son, or a male mourner, or a priest – called the lead cremator or lead mourner – then bathes himself before leading the cremation ceremony. He circumambulates the dry wood pyre with the body, says a eulogy or recites a hymn, places sesame seeds or rice in the dead person’s mouth, sprinkles the body and the pyre with ghee (clarified butter), then draws three lines signifying Lord Yama (Lord of the Dead), Lord Kaala (Lord of Time & Cremation) and the dead spirits. Prior to lighting the pyre, an earthen pot is filled with water, and the lead mourner circles the body with it, before lobbing the pot over his shoulder so it breaks near the head. Once the pyre is ablaze, the lead mourner and the closest relatives may circumambulate the burning pyre one or more times. The ceremony is concluded by the lead cremator, during the ritual, is kapala kriya, or the ritual of piercing the burning skull with a stave (bamboo fire poker) to make a hole or break it, in order to release the spirit.
All those who attend the cremation, and are exposed to the dead body or cremation smoke take a shower as soon as possible after the cremation, as the cremation ritual is considered unclean and polluting. The cold collected ash from the cremation is later consecrated to the nearest river or sea.
In some regions, the male relatives of the deceased shave their head and invite all friends and relatives, on the tenth or twelfth day, to eat a simple meal together in remembrance of the deceased. This day, in some communities, also marks a day when the poor and needy are offered food in memory of the dead.
The cremation ground is called Shmashana in Sanskrit, and traditionally it is located near a river, if not on the river bank itself. Those who can afford it may go to special sacred places like Kashi (Varanasi), Haridwar, Allahabad, Sri Rangam and Rameswaram to complete this rite of immersion of ashes into water.
Both manual bamboo wood pyres and electric cremation are used for Hindu cremations. For the latter, the body is kept on a bamboo frame on rails near the door of the electric chamber. After cremation, the mourner collect the ashes and consecrate it to a water body, such as a river or sea.
Shaving the male relatives of the deceased or even the lead mourner are no longer necessary. As time moves on, certain practices are deemed unnecessary to be continued, showing that our faith is now transitioning itself into a religion that has practicality, freedom and leniency imbued within.