The body of Aishwarya Thatikonda, one of eight people killed in the mall shooting last weekend in Allen, Texas, has been flown to her family in India and cremated.
But as South Asians from Texas to Telangana, India, grieve the loss of the 26 year old, they’re also contending with a funeral process that defies convention — sending off someone so young, who died so far from home.
For someone like Thatikonda who died across an ocean from their immediate family, returning the body to the home country is the first step in a traditional Hindu funeral, and it’s essential in ensuring last rites can be performed.
“The purpose of the funeral ceremony is to honor the body that hosted the soul in this birth,” said Pandit Chandra Mouli, a Hindu priest based in Allen. “It also includes prayers for the soul until it attains its next birth.”
Thatikonda, a project engineer who grew up in the South Indian city of Hyderabad, was at the mall on May 6 shopping for an outfit for her 27th birthday, which would have been on May 18. After graduating with her master’s degree from Eastern Michigan University in 2020, according to her LinkedIn profile, she moved to Texas and began working at a contracting firm.
Messages from NBC News to her dad, brother, cousin and other contacts were not returned.
According to Ashok Kholla, treasurer of the nonprofit Telugu Association of North America, who helped organize the effort to send Thatikonda’s remains home, the family opted for a traditional Hindu ceremony.
This normally includes bathing and dressing the body, administering last rites, cremation, a 13-day period of mourning, and spreading the ashes over a body of water.
In any family, religious or not, having the body of a loved one brings closure, Mouli said. But for Hindu funerals, the body plays a particularly significant role. Normally, cremations are performed as soon as possible, often within a day or two of death, said Madhu Bommineni, president of the American Telugu Association. It took several days for Thatikonda’s body to even begin the journey home, so the grieving process was longer than usual.
“In the Hindu belief, the soul is given a human body as a gift,” Mouli said. “A human birth is considered a very rare gift. Once the purpose of the human body is completed, the body is returned back to where it came from and the soul continues the journey.”
Traditionally, the eldest son of the deceased conducts the last rites, leading the family in prayer. If the person didn’t have children, then that role usually falls to the spouse, said Bommineni. But for someone as young as Thatikonda, who was not married and had no children, who performs the last rites remains unclear.
“Since she’s a young woman, one of her family members, most probably her father, will take care of that,” Bommineni said. “It’s hard to think about. They’d never expect such things to happen to their children. … Not knowing what happened to her, and then knowing she passed away, and then all this weight of bringing her back home. It’s not easy for anybody.”
Mouli says these processes exist to ensure the soul’s safe passage into its next life, its new body. The ashes are scattered in water to free the soul so the body, which is formed in fluid in the womb, can complete the cycle where it began, he said.
“The human body is made of the five elements, and once the soul leaves the body, we consign the body back to the elements,” he said.
Identification of her body was initially delayed “because her face was mutilated, totally unrecognizable,” her boss and close friend Srinivas Chaluvadi told NBC News on Monday. “It’s a grief I’ve never experienced. I pray that this situation doesn’t happen to anybody.”
After the shooting, Telugu community leaders in North Texas came together to raise funds and repatriate Thatikonda’s body to India as soon as they could.
“This young woman came from India to go to school for better education and seeking a better life,” Bommineni said. “And without a thought, she was at the mall and now her family is grieving their loss.”