How does a Sikh funeral work?

Posted: 19/10/2017

Funeral traditions can vary heavily between different cultures and religions. So, what happens at a Sikh funeral and what teachings influence the traditions of their funerals? For a bit of background, Sikhism teaches of a transmigration of the soul (karma) which never ceases to exist. However, the life of a human on earth provides an opportunity for the soul to break the cycle of transmigration to unite with Waheguru (God), who is the Wondrous Giver of Knowledge. This union is the goal of any Sikh and good deeds and truthful conduct on earth are ways in which to break the cycle.

The name for a Sikh funeral is an ‘Antam Sanskaar’ which means “the last rite of passage”. The tone of a Sikh funeral is less about loss and grief and more about the celebration of the life of the deceased and their opportunity to be united with Waheguru finally.

Time of Death

The arrangements for a funeral usually begin immediately after death in Sikhism. Many funeral directors can accommodate the requirements of the traditions of a Sikh funeral.

Before the service of a Sikh funeral, the body is to be ritually bathed and dressed in clean clothing. The Kakaars or the articles of the Sikh faith, which were worn by the person who has passed in their lifetime should not be removed, nor should the hair be cut or removed from any part of the body. The body may also be surrounded by flowers.

Example of the articles of the Sikh faith is unshorn hair, shorts worn as an undergarment, an iron bracelet, a sword and a small wooden comb.

It is not prohibited in general Sikhism to see a loved one before the funeral service, and open caskets are not forbidden at the service.

The Funeral Service

In Sikhism, the formula for a funeral can vary quite widely between communities. In some cases, there will be a service, followed by a cremation, and ending with another service at the Sikh place of worship, the Gudwara. In other cases, the funeral will begin with a cremation and only entail a few prayers.

In almost every case, a Sikh funeral will include a recital of the Adras, a community prayer as well as two daily prayers, called Japji and Kirtan Sohila.

The funeral service can take place either in the home of the bereaved family, at the gurdwara, at the crematorium or outside. It may also take place during the day or the night.

Cremation

Cremation is the preferred method over burial in Sikh tradition. In other parts of the world, the cremation usually takes place on an outdoor funeral pyre. However, in the UK, cremation is restricted to crematoria.

Burial is not forbidden, and it does happen in circumstances which do not allow for cremation.

Following the cremation, the ashes will typically be buried in the earth or simply scattered. It is common for Sikhs to scatter the ashes of their loved ones into a body of flowing water, for example, the sea or a river.

It is not acceptable to raise monuments or place a stone in the name of a person who has passed to mark the site of the cremation.

The Mourning Period

Unlike a lot of other religions, it is not accepted to observe a ritual mourning period after the death of a loved one.

It is frowned upon to show overt public displays of grief, such as waling, crying or tearing clothes. It is also not acceptable to observe “superstitious” rituals, such as lighting a candle in the hopes of guiding their soul to the desired place. The only thing that is ritually done is that the name of Waheguru is repeated by the congregation of the funeral.

Private grieving and comforting others are permitted as Sikhism acknowledges the pain associated with losing someone close to you.

After the funeral, however, the bereaved family will carry out a reading of devotion of the entire of the Sri Guru Granth Sahib – the Sikh holy scripture. The continuous reading will take around 3 days or if the reading is done in sections, it will usually take 10 days to complete. This will either be done at the gurdwara or at the family home.

If for any reason the funeral is delayed, due to a post-mortem, for example, the reading of the Sri Guru Granth Sahib is started on the same day as the funeral cremation, rather than the day after.

What Should You Wear To a Sikh Funeral?

If you are not Sikh, you will not usually be expected to take part in the readings and the prayers. If you are present for then, it is best to stay respectfully silent and sit or stand along with the rest of the congregation. You should wear smart clothing which is subdued in colour, your clothing should also be modest. As a mark of respect, both men and women may be expected to cover their hair as all Sikhs observe this custom at a funeral. Some gurdwaras will be prepared for this and provide any non-Sikhs with a cap for a man or a headscarf for a woman for the ceremony. You may also be expected to remove your shoes as a sign of respect.

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