Sikhism Funeral Traditions

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

Funerals and Mourning
The Sikhs believe in the cycle of life 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 prayful, 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 Sikhs. There is most 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 which is 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 last 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 up to about an hour.

Before the Ceremony
The body of the Sikh will always be cremated which occurs within three days after 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 pants suit. It is best if the legs were 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.

The Ceremony
The pre-cremation ceremony will take place at a funeral home. The post cremation will take place at the gudwara. When the guests arrive make sure it is semi early before the service begins and the guests can seat anywhere they wish. The family of the deceased will sit in front. For the gurdwara services, everyone sits on the floor facing the Siri Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh holy book, sometimes with the men on the left and women on the right. If there is a chance that a guest arrives late enter quietly  and sit anywhere. For the gurdwara wait at the entrance until the ardas, or community prayer, ends and everyone has again been seated.

Depending on the Sikh families custom the body may be displayed at a visitation before the funeral. If this happens then the family of the deceased of the family will be at the ceremony and not before. When a person arrives just offer your condolences. There will be a open casket but that depends of the family and community and their customs. If you are a guest you are not expected to see the body. When you go to the body you say a short prayer for the soul of the deceased and you pass by the casket.

The major officiants of the ceremony would be one person, usually a close family member, officiates  at the ceremony at the funeral home and leads the prayers recited there. Officiating the service in the gurdwara are: The Granthi or Giani Ji,  the person reading the hukam from the Siri Guru Granth Sahib chosen randomly by the reader, is first read in the original Gurmukhi language and then translated to English (or the main language of the congregation).

The attendants, several people who sit behind the Siri Guru Granth Sahib and attend to it by frequently waving a long-handled brush made of long horse hair called a chori sahib above the Siri Guru Granth Sahib or who take out or put away the scriptures. The attendants also serve prasad, or sweet pudding, at the end of the service; read the hukam translation in English; and assist in the gurdwara in any way. Many people from the sangat, the congregation, participate in these functions.

Kirtanis, musicians who lead the sangat in kirtan, songs of praise to God. Also there is the master of ceremonies, the person announcing guest speakers and the order of the service. This role is often fulfilled by the gurdwara secretary or granthi. The books that are used is a Nit Nem, or a daily prayer book of the Sikhs is used to recite the prayers before cremation. Since all prayers are read in Gurmukhi ( the original language of the gurus), it is not expected for guests to also recite these. If desired, however, a Nit Nam with a transliteration may be available upon request.

The order off the ceremony  which is held at a funeral home, no one indicates the order of the ceremony that is held there. For the gurdwara service, there may be a written program and/or the Master of Ceremonies may make periodic announcements. For the non-Sikh there are no expectations for the ceremony. But for the Gurdwara service they are expected to stand and sit at the same time as
everyone else. It is entirely optional for the guests to sing or bow to the Siri Guru Granth Sahib, although they are expected to accept prasad (sweet pudding), which is considered a blessing.  After the funeral the ashes are thrown into the nearest river.

The Cremation
When it comes to the cremation only family members attend because it last several hours. If a guest wants directions they ask friends or the family of the deceased. As the cremation happens the community prayer or ardas, is recited to begin the service. A minister may offer prayers and say a few words, but this is optional. Two Sikh daily prayers, Japji and Kirtan Sohila, are recited, and cremation begins. People that are guests don’t participate unless invited by the family of the deceased.

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 Siri 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 sense this is Sikh 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 that is non-Sikh can visit but not speak of the loss and focus on sadness. It should focus on the good memories of joy of the soul returning to its true Home with God. There are no rituals.