The Anniversary Death Ritual of Hinduism

Relatives mourn while watching a Hindu cremation service.
... Paula Bronstein/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Hindus traditionally memorialize the dead with a yearly death ritual known as the shraddha ceremony. Shraddha, coming from a word meaning “faith,” is performed every year on the lunar calendar date of a Hindu’s death . It’s tradition to first conduct the rites in the days immediately after a death in order to help the individual’s soul move onto their next reincarnated life. As noted in “Hinduism: Beliefs and Practices,” “Death rites are important not only for the future of the dead but also for the continued welfare of the living.”

1 Traditional Purpose

Hindus believe in a reincarnation cycle of birth, death and rebirth. Traditionally, when the soul departs the physical body at death, it needs to move to an astral plane to await its next reincarnation. This plane is said to be populated by the three preceding generations of the deceased individual (See Reference 1, Page 61). When the newly deceased enters the plane, the oldest preceding generation moves onto their rebirth. Immediately after death, the individual’s soul is believed to linger around its living family and may cause them harm until the shraddha rites are performed, letting the soul move onto the astral plane (See Reference 3, Page 59).

2 Immediate Shraddha Service

In the days immediately after death, families gather for a large meal in celebration of the deceased. They generally offer rice balls (pinda) to the dead family member, who is often represented by a photograph. Then a Hindu priest offers four rice balls as well. One is large and represents the recently deceased while the other three are small and represent the preceding generations awaiting reincarnation. The large ball is divided and combined with the smaller pieces, symbolizing how the deceased is reunited with their ancestors. The rice is then fed to either crows, a cow or fish.

3 Annual Shraddha Service

The annual shraddha service in homage to the deceased is similar to the rites conducted immediately after death. Family members often bring a priest into the home in order to make a pinda offering to both the recently deceased and other close ancestors. The offerings, “are nutrients for the soul which has undergone the numerous ceremonies after death,” according to author Mailhilu Jagnalhs . The yearly memorial service is generally performed as long as the sons of the deceased are still living. As noted in “What is Hinduism?” it’s common today for Indian Hindus to conduct shraddha for ancestors prior to the annual Navratri festival.

4 Men and Women

Men traditionally conduct Hindu death rituals. As noted by K. S. Dilipsinh, this creates a “stumbling block” for families that don’t have any sons. Also, when annual shraddha is conducted, it’s common for the son to only mention the names of males in his family’s ancestral lines when making an offering. In some Hindu beliefs, a deceased woman is said to merge with their male ancestors, thus including them in the service. But as author Sarah Lamb found when she asked Hindu women attending a memorial whether their female ancestors were honored, she found that most were “uncertain.” Lamb, however, did find that women received the full rituals that are traditionally given immediately after death.

Errol Manguso is based on the East Coast. Since graduating with a B.A. in Journalism and English from the University of Minnesota nearly 10 years ago, he has written for a wide variety of publications such as Spin, The Art Newspaper, American Songwriter, and many others.