Anta literally means 'end', and eshti is 'wish, desire, seeking to go towards'. Antyeshti, or the funeral rites, is the last sanskara performed for an individual. It probably originated from the need to dispose off the body in a befittingly humane manner. This practical requirement later developed into a religious belief. It is believed that one conquers the earth through the sanskaras after birth and heaven through the sanskaras after death. Because of the belief in the existence of a soul, death signifies the end only of one birth, and preparations must be made for a safe journey to the next world. Food and other articles believed to be necessary on this journey are also provided to the dead.
To this end, antyeshti serves to dispose of the body, equips the soul with what it needs for its journey to Yamaloka (see Moksha), and frees the soul's earthly survivors from the pollution caused by death. It is believed that until this ritual is performed, the soul is not sent on to the next world and remains on earth, where it flits about restlessly as a ghost (see Bhuta, Preta, Pishacha). The early pastoral nomads probably just left their dead behind where they fell and moved on. This evolved into burial by the Vedic period. By the end of the Vedic age, the concept of sacrifices was fully established . At this time, the funeral itself came to be regarded as a sacrifice. Cremation eclipsed burial, since the soul of the corpse was now regarded as a sacrificial offering to the gods which would be conveyed to them by their messenger Agni, the god of fire. Fire was also believed to cleanse the souls of the dead. Funeral rites differ marginally across the country, but most beliefs and practices are alike. A man's eldest son or any other male relative performs his rites. A woman's husband, eldest son or brother performs her ceremony. When a person's death seems inevitable, he is made to lie with his head towards the south, since this is the direction Yama is believed to come from. Vedic mantra or verses from the Ramayana or Bhagavad Gita are recited to him. Water, with tulasi leaves soaked in it, is poured into his mouth.
After death, the body is tied to a bamboo bier or arthi, facing upwards with the head to the south. The dead man's son then bathes, is tonsured (mundan), and bathes again. He covers the corpse with an unbleached, uncut cloth, which is considered very pure. This is to prepare the departing soul for its journey to the next world.
The corpse is taken to the cremation ground in a procession headed by the eldest son, who carries a pot of water. He is followed by the bier, supported by friends and relatives. Others follow in decreasing order of age. All males above the age of two are supposed to accompany the bier. Traditionally, a cow or a goat was also an important constituent of the procession, to accompany the dead to the other world. The animal was sacrificed at the time of cremation. Now, however, a relative of the deceased presents the animal to the priest who conducts the rites at the cremation ground.
After reaching the cremation ground, a suitable place is selected for the funeral pyre. It is purified by sprinkling water-using stalks of durva. Mantra are chanted to scare away evil spirits. Then the pyre is built. The Ashvalayana Grihyasutra (see Sutra) gives exact specifications for the type of wood to be used, the size of the pyre, and so on. The hair and nails of the corpse are trimmed and it is bathed again in preparation for the journey ahead. The body is then laid on the pyre with the head to the south. A piece of purifying gold is placed on the lips.
Until the Sutra period, the widow of the deceased man lay down on the pyre to his left. A younger brother or disciple of the deceased then held her hand and asked her to come away. She stepped down from the pyre, along with the gold from her dead husband's lips, and became the brother's or disciple's wife. This was the ritual that became the basis of the practice now known as sati. Neither of these two customs are prevalent today. Instead, the gold is removed from the lips of the deceased by his son and given to the priest.
More logs of wood are then placed on the pyre atop the body. The son circumambulates the pyre three times with the pot of water he has brought with him. He sprinkles water on the pyre as he goes around. After going around the pyre thrice, he stands at the head of the body and drops the pot so that it breaks. He then takes a lit log of wood, with which he lights the pyre on all four sides, while the priest recites prayers to Agni. The mourners then leave the pyre and bathe in the nearest river with their sacred thread hanging across the chest from the right shoulder (see Upanayanam). Facing south, they offer a handful of water to the dead man. Most of the funeral party now returns home. Two or three people remain until the body has completely burnt. On the way home, the order of the procession is reversed, with the younger men leading the group. On reaching home and before entering the house, they purify themselves by touching any of these things found in the vicinity of the house: a stone, fire, cow dung, grain, 'til seed, oil or water. According to the Agni Purana, neem leaves should also be chewed. Then begins the period of defilement or pollution, called ashaucha, which ends on the tenth day after the death. During this time, the family observes many restraints, like not cooking food at home. Their neighbors must feed them, while they work out their grief and readjust their lives after the death in the family. This practice not only allows the bereaved family some time to recover from their loss but also enforces a sense of community.
After the cremation is the collection of bones or asthi-sanchaya. Usually on the third day after the cremation, a relative of the deceased returns to the cremation ground to collect the ashes and bones. To the recitation of Vedic mantras (see mantra), these are collected in an urn. Care is taken not to leave any of the bones behind. First the ashes of the lower body are collected and put into the urn, then the ashes of the upper body, and lastly the ashes of the head. Till the Sutra period, this urn was buried, but now, it is carried to the Ganga or to any other river and immersed, which is believed to lead the deceased straight to heaven. For 11 days after the death, offerings of food (pindadana) are made to the deceased.
The funeral rites end with Shradha, which is performed on the thirteenth day after death, (tervi). Traditionally, these funeral rites are not performed for young children, unmarried girls, and ascetics or sanyasis (see Ashram) Young children and unmarried girls were immersed in a river. They were believed to be pure already, without needing to be purified by fire. For an ascetic, a burial ceremony is detailed in the scriptures. This is because a sanyasi is believed to have overcome all his sins by doing penance and therefore does not require purification. Antyeshti was also not performed for someone who committed suicide or died an unnatural death. If a pregnant woman died, she was cremated but her foetus was removed and buried. If a man died away from home, he was cremated again with proper rites at home, using an effigy made of kusha grass. Today however, cremation is the general rule, except for sanyasis, who are buried.
Verses referring to the burial of the dead are found in the Rig-Veda (see Veda). However, by the end of the Vedic period, burial had been largely replaced by cremation. The Grihyasutras (see Sutra) do not mention the burial of the dead at all.
Funeral rites have remained mostly unchanged. Nowadays, everyone is cremated except very young children and ascetics, who are buried. A significant change is the increasing popularity of electric crematoriums in urban areas. Antyeshti too, is much less elaborate today.
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