Will you be attending a Sikh funeral for the first time? Here is an overview of the general Sikh customs and traditions surrounding death, burial, and mourning to be aware of when attending a funeral.
Ethnic Sikhs follow the religion called Sikhism that started in the 15th century in Northern India. It is one of the newer major religions and the fifth largest in the world. Sikhs believe in one God with equality for all humankind whose adherents strive for the benefit of all.
After a person dies, Sikhs believe that the soul continues on a journey to God, uniting with Waheguru, the giver of knowledge. A person will achieve this connection with Waheguru after death if they practiced good deeds, truthful living, and by the grace of Waheguru.
The Sikh funeral is known as Antam Sanskaar, meaning “the last rite of passage”. The idea of the funeral is not to focus on loss and grief but to celebrate that the soul has the opportunity to re-join Waheguru.
At Time of Death
Preparations for a Sikh funeral begin immediately following death. Most funeral homes are aware of Sikh traditions and can carry out a proper ceremony. The body is washed and dressed in clean clothing and the Kakaars, the articles of Sikh faith that are worn during their life, are not to be removed and hair should not be cut.
The articles of Sikh faith that remain with the body are very specific. They are Kesh, uncut hair, a small wooden comb called kangha, shorts that are usually worn under clothes called kachha, karha, which is an iron bracelet, and a sword of varying length called kirpan.
Flowers may be placed around the body. Cremation of the body is preferred but burial is permitted if cremation is impossible. Visitation with the body is possible and there is usually an open casket at the funeral.
Sikh Funeral Practices
Non-Sikhs attending a Sikh funeral are not expected to participate in prayers or readings. You should be respectfully silent and sit or stand when the congregation does the same.
Attendees should wear clothing that is modest and not too colorful. Sikhs cover their heads at a funeral and some services will require you to do the same. You may be provided with a head scarf when you enter the gurdwara and be required to take off your shoes. Flowers are not traditional, please consult with the family first to see if flowers would be appropriate.
The Sikh funeral ceremony can have various formats. There may be a service before cremation and then a service after at the place of worship called gurdwara but sometimes the service may be a cremation ceremony only with prayers said at that time.
Typically the community prayer called Ardas and two daily prayers, Japji and Kirtan Sohila are recited at the funeral. The service may take place at the gurdwara, the family’s home, the crematorium, or outdoors.
Usually family, close relatives and close friends may attend the cremation. The ashes are typically scattered in a body of water or buried in the earth. Monuments with the name of the deceased at the site of cremation is not proper.
Mourning at the funeral service is not proper since it is believed that mourners are resigned to God’s will. Sikhs do not follow a period of mourning after the death of a loved one. At the family home or the gurdwara, there is a continuous reading of the Sri Guru Granth Sahib done over three days, or 10 days. It is proper to offer comfort to the family in private.