Sikh Death Rites

Sikh Funeral Traditions

This topic focuses on subjects of final death rites related with the religion of Sikhism concerning funerals and mourning, the appropriate attire to wear, gifts, as well as, the actual ceremony. It also includes the cremation, and finally the comforting of the bereaved. Briefly it also covers origination of the religion.

Sikhism originated from India in the late 15th century through the life of teaching of Guru Nanak which was the first Sikh Guru. Today there are about 20 million Sikhs throughout the world.

Funerals and Mourning
The Sikhs believe in the cycle of life, death or reincarnation which certain actions and attachments bind to this cycle. The soul itself is not subject to death. Death is only a progression to the journey from God, through the created universe, and back to God again. The Sikhs try to constantly be mindful of death so he or she can be sufficiently prayerful, and the righteous to break the cycle of birth and death and return to God. Because the soul never dies there is no mourning at the death of a Sikh. There is more praying at a funeral so the soul can be released from the bonds of reincarnation and to become on with God again.

At the funeral, the Sikhs prepare a yogurt bath for the body while reciting prayers. Afterwards, the body is dressed in new clothes. When dressed, there are five symbols of Sikh which are kesh meaning uncut hair. The next one is kirpan which is a Sikh knife that represents compassion and one’s task to defend the truth. Kara which is a stainless steel bracelet and kachera which is special Sikh underwear and finally kanga which is a small comb.

After all that is taken care of, there is a small ceremony that takes place at a funeral home before the cremation. To start the service there is an ardas or community prayer. The minister may present to offer prayers and say a few words but this is optional if the minister wants to. There are two daily prayers that are said by the Sikhs which are Japji and Kirtan Sohila. After those are recited the cremation begins. When these are recited the funeral is basically over but can be said all throughout the cremation. The guests can leave and the service lasts usually about 30 to 60 minutes.

After that, there is a service at the Gurdwara, but this is optional if desired.  The word akal which also means undying, is chanted through the service to help release the soul to return to the infinite. This second ceremony which is a service in itself, can last up to about an hour.

Religious Traditions

Before the Ceremony
The body of the Sikh will always be cremated. This occurs within three days after the death. When a non-Sikh hears about a death, it is appropriate to call and express the love for the deceased. But in doing so, do not focus on the sadness or the loss. But focus on the good times so to speak of that person and that it is returning to its true home with God.  The body is then surrounded by flowers.

Appropriate Attire
Men: A jacket and tie or more casual, modest clothing. Any color would be fine. Shoes may be worn inside the funeral home but not in Gurdwara service. The head should be covered with a hat, cap or scarf. There are no rules regarding the color of clothing.

Women: A modest dress, a skirt and blouse, or a pant suit. It is best if the legs are covered enough to sit comfortably cross-legged. Shoes may be worn inside the funeral home but not at a Gurdwara service. The head should be covered with a scarf, hat or veil. Open-toed shoes and modest jewelry are permissible. There are no rules regarding the color of clothing.

It is appropriate to send flowers, food, and contributions to a charity chosen by the family of the deceased, but are not expected. It is necessary to bring food but make sure it doesn’t contain meat, fish, eggs or alcohol comforting the Bereaved.

It is not expected to visit the home of the bereaved but is optional if desired. There are often memorial services held at the home, especially when the funeral ceremony has taken place in another city. Sometimes, the family of the deceased sponsors an Akhand Path (unbroken) or other reading of the Shri Guru Granth Sahib. This may take place at their home, at the Gurdwara, or elsewhere. During the Akhand Path service, the entire ceremony is read in 48 hours in the Gurmukhi language or in 72 hours in English. People take turns reading the text.

It is possible for food to be served. But since this is a Sikh funeral, there will be no alcoholic beverages and none will be offered. People that are mourners go back to normal life routine after a few days to a week after the funeral. This is at the personal discretion of each individual. If you are a friend who is non-Sikh, you can visit but not speak of the loss and focus on sadness. You should focus on the good memories of joy of the soul returning to its true Home with God. There are no rituals.

Reference: (The source for funeral information, Cincinnati, Ohio 45231)