Hindus, who make up an estimated 3 percent of city residents, have long cremated their dead but have been forced to adapt their death rituals to a New York City context. Once an individual passes away, the body must be cremated as soon as possible, said Ravi Vaidyanaat, head priest of Ganesh Temple in Flushing, Queens, the city’s largest and oldest Hindu Temple.
“Once the soul is out, the body becomes what we call jadam, which means it’s of no material use, and cannot be reused,” he explained.
In India, a funeral and cremation take place within 24 hours; however, in the United States the process takes place two to three days after death due to legal formalities, Vaidyanaat said.The body is presented at a wake for mourners to pay their respects and a last rites ceremony is conducted among close family members and led by the eldest son. The ceremony typically takes place on the grounds of the home (e.g. the backyard), or if the family cannot find a suitable place near the family home (for instance, if they reside in an apartment building), they may carry out this ceremony on the grounds of the temple.
Following the ceremony, the cremation takes place, with mourners present. While open-air cremations are common in India, in the U.S. (and New York City), bodies are burned in a crematorium. Cemeteries associated with other faiths often have crematoriums that accommodate other faiths such as Hindus. After cremation, ashes must be spread over a body of water.
In India, ashes are laid to rest in the Ganges or other sacred rivers connected to it. In New York, decisions on which body of water to spread the ashes over are made by the family, said Vaidyanaat. The body of water must be well-maintained, have good water flow and offer a convenient access point from which to scatter the ashes.
Following the cremation, a number of ceremonies must be conducted by the family throughout the year, and on each death anniversary. — Suman Bhattacharyya