Indian community customs and traditions following a death in the UK
Each Friday lunchtime at Compassionate Communities UK weekly kitchen conversation (find out more here), members meet up and engage in deep conversations about death, dying and loss. One particular conversation was about different ways communities respond to a death, which led to the suggestion for this short blog.
As a first-generation British born Indian, both my parents immigrated to the UK from the Gujrat state of India in the 1950s at a time when there were very few people of Indian origin living in the UK. In those early days, people from the same Indian region who came to the UK settled near to each other. The small community formed close bonds and continued with the cultural traditions and customs handed down the generations in the UK. These include cultural traditions that are observed when someone dies within the Hindu community. Now two generations later, to a great extent, these customs continue to be observed.
Soon after a person has died, the family will prepare an altar made of a piece of wood covered in foil, and placed on the floor with a photograph of the person who has died together with flowers and a divo. A divo will be lit and this light will be kept alight continuous for 12 days or until the day of their funeral. The room where the altar is placed is prepared with white sheets on the floor and most of the furniture in the room will be cleared away to make room for visitors. Close family members will all come together for the period of mourning and keep vigil of the divo until the day of the funeral. The female members of the family will traditionally wear white clothes to mark they are in mourning, while the men of the family will not shave until after the funeral.
Once the wider family, friends, neighbours, community members become aware of the death, they will visit to simple ‘Sit’ with the bereaved family. Culturally, it is tradition, for people to visit the family and pay their respect. Mostly, it is the female members of the family who will sit on the floor and visitors will sit with them, there is no expectation to say anything but be respectful and just be present in the experience of grief. Normally, the bereaved family will not cook food until after the funeral relying on members of the community, who will work out a rota between themselves to cook meals for the family. This tradition offers the community the opportunity to provide practical support and, for the family to be supported (held) by their community members in their time of need. During the evening, the community will come together with the family and participate in reciting bhajans (prayers).
The family will prepare for the Hindu funeral, which will include performing rituals. These rituals will be carried out by obligated family member for the their loved one as a ‘rite of passage’ for the spirit of the deceased family member. On the day of the funeral the deceased person will be brought back to the home. The funeral casket is normally always open for the funeral rituals, which will be performed by a Hindu Priest with the family and, then the rest of the funeral guests will pay their respect as they walk past the open casket.
After the funeral, over the next few weeks, the family will carry out several different ceremonies with a Hindu priest to mark the passing and the transition of the deceased person’s spirit and bring the formal phase of the grieving period to an end. Completing the ceremonies enables the family to fulfil their obligations and to support their loved one in death. Of course, grief does not end and as family members adjust to their changed lives, some will draw on their Hindu faith and observe the religious calendar, fasting on certain days for the benefit of their deceased family members, a relationship continued.
I have observed how these traditions guide both the bereaved family and the community through the initial transition following a death. Community members are supportive not because they have to but because they want to. At times when I have visited to ‘Sit’ I have observed how the bereaved family have drawn strength from the presence of the community around them. There is a real sense of people coming together at a times of need and feeling like you are a part of the community – belong to a community. With a dual identify I belong to different communities; each one offers different perspective and are equally valued. So, for those who are reading this, are there customs or traditions you follow or have observed and do they gather a community in times of need?
Dr Manjula Patel, CCUK Trustee and Murray Hall Community Trust CEO