Hindu rituals

Hindus form the majority of the Indian population. According to Hindu traditions, the body is cremated using wood in an open pyre. However, some families choose incinerators that run on electricity or Compressed Natural Gas. For an open-pyre cremation, one needs large quantities of wood – close to 400 to 600 kilograms. Although the wood type and quality vary, the minimum cost of timber is Rs 8 per kilogram, costing approximately Rs 6,000-7,000 per funeral.

Furthermore, a shroud cost can range from Rs 600-800. In addition, saamagri, a mixture of dried herbs and ghee offered to the pyre, can cost between Rs 2,000-3,000. However, the prices may vary depending on the quality and quantity of materials. In addition, dakshina to the pallbearer or sevadars ranges between Rs 500-1000.

There are also some value-added services that crematoriums provide. For example, some families also choose smokeless pyres with exhaust chimneys for a higher fee at Nigambodh Ghat crematorium in Delhi. “In Delhi, everything is more expensive. A funeral alone would cost around Rs 5,000-6,000 here. So we suggest the wood of mango, banyan and eucalyptus since chandan is very expensive. Therefore, many people can’t afford to buy chandan ki lakdi. However, families ritually place a small amount of chandan on the funeral pyre – even the very poor can afford a minimal amount of chandan ki lakdi,” said Rajesh, a funeral pandit at Nigambodh ghat – the biggest Ghat in the capital of India.

The pandits charge a dakshina of Rs 1000-1,500 for presiding over the funeral. When I inquired about his charges, Rajesh said, “It depends on the jajmaan. We see the family’s paying capacity – we don’t put pressure on anyone. However, the charges are fixed at Rs 750 for cremations and Rs 250 for phul chugne. But, he added, antim sanskaar is the last sanskaar – there is no harm in paying a slightly extra amount to the pandit.” Moreover, when families are grieving, they hardly take account of these expenses.

As mentioned above, the expenses vary depending on the family’s economic status and choice. The choice of wood also determines the funeral expenses. For example, some affluent families wish to use sandalwood for cremations – considered more auspicious and purer. “I chose to use some kilos of sandalwood for my mother’s cremation because she was very dear to me,” a family member in Varanasi told me. Another expense is immersing bones and ashes in the holy river after cremation – the fees of the brahmin for every small or big ritual range from Rs 101 to several thousand. But, again, the expenses vary depending on the place of residence/city.

For instance, if the rites are performed in religious places like Haridwar or Varanasi, then the costs incurred by the families increase. “I don’t encourage my clients to visit Kashi or Haridwar for immersion because the costs are very high. Moreover, I don’t want my clients to get stressed,” said, a funeral director. However, families often come this far to fulfil the deceased’s last wish. “There was a Russian music artist of Indian origin. He wanted his asthi to be immersed in the Ganges. So his troupe travelled from Russia to fulfil his last wish,” said Amrit.

When he pointed this out, similar scenes flashed in my mind. During our visit to Haridwar to immerse papa’s ashes in Ganga, I recalled how ritualists flocked around us, eagerly waiting to offer their services, luring families to perform rituals they barely understand. Similarly, in Varanasi, I saw Doms, tirath purohits and flower sellers keen to assist mourners in death-related and post-cremation practices. “Poori dukaandari dharam ke naam par chal rahi hai yahan – everything boils down to economics. This happens everywhere – I have witnessed similar scenes in Rishikesh and Pushkar,” said Harish, owner of a tourist company in Varanasi. Ironically, these sacred rituals have become money-making businesses by a handful of people.

Among Hindus, the post-funeral thirteen-day rituals are elaborate. For instance, pind daan performed by the family members involves expenditure. Besides, the death and other life cycle rituals are demarked among brahmin pandits, determining their rights over the daan. For instance, the Mahapatras, a sect of brahmins who handle the eleventh-day ceremonies, charge a handsome amount of fees on behalf of the dead person. In addition, they demand commodities like television sets, air conditioners, or even a piece of land, costing lakhs of rupees, in the name of ritual offerings. “He doesn’t ask for less money – sometimes a Mahapatra demands Rs 10,000 or more. He doesn’t eat food till you fulfil his demands,” said a ritual priest in Varanasi.

After the eleventh day, the rituals are presided over by the kul purohit (family pandit) or a karam-kandi brahmin. “The kul brahmins don’t charge any money till the thirteenth day. Instead, they vasool (recover) the entire amount on that day. Then, they make you perform gau daan and charge many other donations like clothes and shoes that sum up to approximately Rs 30,000,’ a family from Varanasi told me. Besides, the bargaining power of the families is negligible when it comes to last rites and rituals. Therefore, one usually pays the dakshina that the pandit or other ritualists demand.

These days, the pandits in Haridwar and Kashi have added more services to their repertoire. They offer online service packages with live streaming of the pind daan ceremony through Zoom for an additional charge – many Non-Resident Indians who travel to India avail of these services. There are also rituals like holding a grand feast for relatives and friends on the thirteenth day, costing anywhere between a few hundred to lakhs.

Again, when I was writing this part, I was reminded of the film Pagglait. In the movie, the deceased’s distressed father was shown calculating the escalating unbudgeted funeral expenses while making an elaborate list of ingredients they would require for the thirteenth-day ceremony. These expenses could be burdening for many. While others are willing to walk the extra mile and employ professional funeral services, the costs escalate if one opts for high-end services. A funeral organiser told me, “My elite clients demand elaborate rituals. The decorations and the flowers are exquisite. Moreover, the food catering is specifically designed depending on the client’s needs.”

Islamic rituals

Muslims constitute 14.2% of the Indian population as per Census 2011. In some instances, wealthy Muslims either use their land or buy space for burying their deceased relatives, while the poor bury their dead in public cemeteries. The kafan costs up to Rs 1000-2,000. Digging the grave costs nearly Rs 1000, and putting wooden planks on the sides of the burial costs Rs 3,500-4,000. Bathing and dressing the body costs Rs 3,000-4,000. Besides, scents, flowers and the rates of graveyards approximately cost Rs 2,000-5,000.

Among some communities, heavy expenditures are incurred on the fortieth day when a feast is organised for relatives and friends. Among Muslims, the minimum spending incurred in burying a dead body is about Rs 6000-10,000.

Christian rituals

Christians comprise a small part of India’s population. The critical expenditure in Christian burial rituals is on the coffin and the cemetery. The cloth in which the body is wrapped costs roughly Rs 1000. Expenses incurred on the coffin cost can range from Rs 2,000 to several lakhs depending on the kind of coffin one orders. “The price varies depending on the decorations. Some coffins are golden-edged, some are brass-edged, while others are glass-topped. The cost differs depending on the choice of wood like mango, cedar, and plywood. Besides, some are polished, and others are unpolished. The more elaborate ones are made of teakwood, lined with satin cushions, costing more,” said Cyril.

Besides, the cemetery charge varies between Rs 8,000-16,000. The labour charges are up to Rs 1000. The priest also demands fees between Rs 2,000-3,000 depending on the family’s economic status. Types of flowers and bouquets offered also add to the cost. Furthermore, families usually have to buy land for the grave, especially in private cemeteries. Additionally, expenses are incurred on prayer meetings held on the twelfth or thirteenth day of burial.

Excerpted with permission from The Final Farewell: Understanding the Last Rites and Rituals of India’s Major Faiths, Minakshi Dewan, HarperCollins India.