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By Allison Steele
Religion News Service

Sayreville, N.J. – When Sejal Vyas’ mother died suddenly last year, her family wanted a traditional Hindu funeral with sacraments like incense and kindling, but her father also had a special request.
After the service, the father wanted his wife’s casket carried from room to room in the couple’s house in a Hindu ritual meant to symbolize the different phases of a spirit’s journey after death.
Vyas, whose parents are immigrants from India, turned to the Hindu Funeral Home in Sayreville for help.
“She was concerned that she was asking us to do things we couldn’t do,” said Greg Young, co-owner of the Hindu Funeral Home, which is one of two funeral homes in the state catering exclusively to Hindu services. “And it was the first time that we had been asked to do that particular thing, bring the casket back to the house. But we are always learning about new traditions, and what I tell people is, if we can do it, we will.”
While many funeral homes cater to different faiths, Young said he and co-owner Peter Kothari realized there was a niche to be served with the state’s surging Asian-Indian community. Young brought his 35 years in the funeral business, while Kothari brought his connections to the immigrant community as a the owner of a travel agency.
“Funeral directors have always helped cultures maintain their practices and religious beliefs,” said Young, of West Orange.
Charlton McIlwain, an assistant professor of media, culture and communication at New York University’s sociology department, said funerals are an important way for ethnic groups to maintain their cultural identities.
“The move to hold on to those rituals and different practices is simply a way of maintaining one’s membership in one culture and resisting assimilation into another,” McIlwain said.
Young said he handles an average of three to four funerals a week with clients from throughout New Jersey and New York. At India Funeral Services, the state’s other all-Hindu funeral home, owner Anna Louise Bongiovi arranges more than 100 ceremonies a year.
Young and Bongiovi say the demand for the services is growing each year, which provides a strong incentive for them to become as knowledgeable as possible about different customs.
Though Hindu funerals can vary greatly depending on the region where the family is from, all ceremonies revolve around preparing the deceased’s soul for a journey to the place of creation. Typically the deceased is dressed in white and displayed in a simple casket while loved ones pray, sometimes laying flower petals, garlands or other items alongside the body.
Usually a priest reads scripture from holy books, and brings barley, sandalwood, butter, incense and bowls of rice to lay before the casket.
The oldest male descendant is often called to light kindling and say prayers.
Traditional Hindu funerals in India begin with a procession and end with a pyre on the bank of the Ganges River, or the body is taken to a cremation center. Cremation is believed to release the soul from its body, and Hindu funerals occur almost immediately after the death, so as to free the soul from its earthly bonds as soon as possible.
Young said an important part of his role is explaining local laws and helping families adapt customs to keep traditions as close as possible. For example, Young said state law prohibits cremation until at least 24 hours after death, and those who die at home must have death certificates made, and the police must be notified.
Hindu funerals also operate within a compressed time-frame. While most funerals in America are held up to a week or longer after death, most Hindu funeral services are completed within 48 hours after death.
Young and Bongiovi also arrange for bodies and remains to be shipped to India, which means doing everything from getting papers from the consulate in New York to finding a plane willing to take the body.
“Some of these people are immigrants,” Young said, “and suppose they call a funeral home and don’t know anything about it? They’re going to get price quotes for a three- to four-day American funeral, and they’re not going to end up getting what they want.”
Young said many of his clients are like Vyas, adult children of immigrants who are unfamiliar with Hindu services. After her mother’s death, Vyas realized that keeping family traditions alive mattered not only to her father, but also to relatives in India who could not attend.
“We were a little suspicious at first,” said Vyas. “(Young) is an American guy, who’s not at all Indian, and we were not sure how he would handle all the different things involved. But I saw that he clearly knew more than I did.”
Allison Steele writes for The Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J.
c. 2007 Religion News Service

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