A Vaishnava Funeral

November 28 – I was called to conduct a devotees funeral over in west London. Mrs Pramila Ahuja, 63, a devoted wife and mother of four children, had passed away. No-one had been surprised at her death since Pramila had suffered fourteen years of illness after her second liver transplant and arthritic pain. Now, finally, her difficulties in life were all over.

Pramila was a schoolteacher in India and had then become married to Manohara who at that time was working as an engineer in Germany. Later they had both settled in London where Pramila had given birth to four children. Two daughters, Manorika, Radhika, and two sons, Ajay and Karan.

In one way or another they had all pursued a life of devotion to Krishna. Pramila had first become involved with Srila Prabhupada’s movement in Germany and in London where she had cooked for him, especially chapattis which his western disciples often found it difficult to make. Back in 2000 Pramila became initiated by Narayana Maharaja and received the name Pramode devi dasi.

Over the years she had hosted many devotees at her home in Hanwell, including me. Now I was to perform the last service for her. Manorika picked me up at the Manor and told me her mother’s life story as we drove to the house. I worked quickly once at the house to make arrangements for the funeral, since the body was to arrive in just an hour.

Our Vaishnava funeral ceremonies are in two parts, one at the house for those taking part in the traditional rites, and the other at the crematorium which is also attended by other friends and distant family. Antyeshti-karma, or the funeral rites, involve songs and prayers before the open coffin, along with expressions of appreciation for the devotee’s spiritual life. Sacred objects such as garlands, tulasi wood, dust from Vrindavan and water from the Ganges river are all placed upon the deceased. A last arati is offered to the home altar and all the mourners place flower petals at the feet. Prayers to the Lord are then offered on behalf of the departed Vaishnava and the cremation process ceremonially begins by the chief mourner offering grains of barley and sesame seeds mixed with ghee into a flame. The assembled devotees then all sing a final kirtan, offer their respects to the departed, and the coffin is then closed.

At the crematorium we again reflect on how the departed devotee contributed to our own life, and how they offered us inspiration by their fine example. In Pramila’s case, there was much affectionate praise for her fortitude amid physical suffering, and how she cared for devotees throughout the years despite it all.

There is then a reflection upon how transitory the body is compared to the eternality of the soul. Normally this is accompanied by scriptural readings, often from the second chapter of the Bhagavad-gita.

Finally, it was my sad task to invite Pramila’s husband and children to come forward and place their hands upon the coffin as we all – perhaps one hundred devotees in all – stood to recite the last verses of the Sri Isopanishad: “Now let this body be burned to ashes…”

Devotees shed tears as the sound of kirtan welled up in the chapel and her coffin slowly disappeared behind the curtains. Afterwards, after we had consigned the coffin to the flames, I took the family members through a short tarpana ceremony, an offering of water on behalf of the soul, and then everyone lined up to offer them condolences.

The following morning, as if continuing a reflection on the impermanence of life in this world, I heard the news that Mr. Harish Bhatra, a very friendly, long-time member and supporter of our temple, and the helpful travel agent of most of our devotees, had passed away suddenly from a heart attack that morning while in Delhi, India. Just five days ago I had been discussing the future with him, the following day he went to Vrindavan on pilgrimage and today he has departed. May Lord Krishna bless both devotees to attain His ultimate shelter very soon.


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