Sikh funeral rites: the ceremony
A Sikh funeral takes place as quickly as possible after the death – ideally within three days or less of the deceased passing.
Before the ceremony the body of the deceased is washed and dressed in clean clothes, including a headscarf or turban depending on gender. If the deceased was a baptised Sikh they are also dressed in their karkars, the five articles of Sikh faith. These include:
- Kesh – uncut hair
- Kangha – a wooden comb
- Kachha/kachhehra – an undergarment
- Karha – an iron bracelet
- Kirpan – a dagger
Friends and family then surround the body of the deceased with flowers, typically orange and white chrysanthemums, which are mourning blooms in India and throughout much of Asia. The casket may be open at a Sikh funeral, but not necessarily – it is down to the family to decide.
A funeral ceremony in Sikhism is known as ‘Antam Sanskaar’ – celebration of the completion of life. Sikhs view death as part of the natural process of reincarnation and believe that after death the spirit becomes one with the divine. For this reason there is no formal mourning after death.
At the funeral the deceased’s loved ones will be subdued, to show their resignation to the will of God. Guests should follow their example. Sikhs believe in mourning quietly and privately; demonstrative mourning displays, such as wailing or overt weeping, are frowned upon.
Followers of the Sikh faith don’t believe in what they perceive to be superstitious rituals, so their funerals are simple affairs. Generally the whole community gathers together at the gurdwara to recite prayers about their dedication to God and their acceptance that the deceased has gone. They may repeat ‘Waheguru’ (which means ‘wonderful Lord’).
If you are not of the Sikh faith, you don’t need to join in the prayers or chanting. Take your cue to sit or stand from the rest of the congregation and stay respectfully quiet during prayers or readings of Sikh scripture.
Sikhs do permit eulogies at funerals, but they are kept brief so as not to detract from the religious aspects of the ceremony. Excessively long or sentimental eulogies could cause the loved ones of the deceased to break their spiritual detachment or offend the Sikh belief that the body is no more than a vessel for the soul.
Sikhs prefer cremation as a rule, but burying is acceptable provided that no headstone or monument is placed to commemorate the dead. The lack of monument symbolises that the soul of the deceased has already passed on and into another body and reflects the teachings of scripture – corpses are empty shells now that reincarnation has taken place.
After the funeral is over, a select group of the deceased’s relatives and close friends escort the coffin to a crematorium – only loved ones can witness the cremation process and offer prayers during it.
Traditionally it would have been carried out in the open air on a funeral pyre, but this is illegal in the UK and throughout much of the West. The oldest family member will press the button to begin cremation and the rest will watch until the cremation process is complete.
As in traditional in many Asian religions that believe in reincarnation, following cremation Sikhs scatter the ashes of their loved ones in running water or on the sea. However there are no specifically holy rivers in Sikhism so relatives are free to scatter ashes on any body of water legally permitted by the country that they are in. Most choose a location for sentimental reasons.
On the first anniversary of the deceased’s death, their family gather together to pray and have a meal. They may choose to do this at the gurdwara, in which case the meal will be shared with the entire congregation.
This is not an occasion of mourning – it is to celebrate their loved one and the happy times they spent together. It also praises God for allowing the deceased to be reincarnated into their new form.
Sikh funeral rites: after cremation
After the funeral ceremony the deceased’s loved ones will gather together and read the entire Sikh holy scripture, the Sri Guru Granth Sahib. This ceremonial reading is known as the ‘Akhand Paatth’.
The Akhand Paatth is ideally conducted in a single sitting, which takes three days. Some Sikhs take turns to read it without pause, night and day, and this process is generally complete within 48hrs.
However the reading can be done incrementally over the course of a longer period (usually no more than ten days) if that is more convenient. Akhand Paath can take place either at the gurdwara or at a family home.
If the funeral is delayed, however, the family may choose to begin Akhand Paatth before the ceremony. In this case the reading’s completion ceremony, known as the ‘Bhog Paona’, generally coincides with the day of the funeral.
Sikh funeral dress code
It is best to wear subdued neutral colours to a Sikh funeral. White, as the Asian colour of mourning, is most appropriate but black, navy and charcoal grey are all acceptable, particularly if the funeral takes place in a western country.
Bright colours (especially red, which is the colour of joy through much of Asia) and patterns of any kind should be avoided as they are considered disrespectful. Dress smartly in suits or formal dresses. Your outfit should be modest, so don’t show too much skin and avoid ostentatious jewellery.
Sikhs of both genders cover their hair at religious ceremonies. If you’re attending a Sikh home funeral, ask the family what is the most appropriate thing to wear – they may be fine with you leaving your head bare. If the ceremony is taking place at a gurdwara, head coverings may be provided – check beforehand if you’re unsure.
Whether the ceremony is held at a gurdwara or at the home of the deceased’s family, you will usually be asked to remove your shoes to show respect. Funeral prayers typically take place seated on the floor. Wear shoes that you can take off easily and make sure that your socks are neutral-coloured, clean and free of holes.