Sikhism is a religion that started more than 500 years ago. It has about 30 million followers, who are called Sikhs. Like any religion, Sikhism has its own funeral traditions and rituals. If you’re not a Sikh, these customs might be different to the ones you’re used to.
In this article, you’ll learn what to expect if you’re invited to a Sikh funeral. You’ll also find advice about Sikh funeral costs and arrangements.
What does Sikhism teach about life after death?
Sikhism teaches reincarnation. This means coming back to life as a different person or an animal.
Sikhs believe that people live many lives in many different forms. This cycle of death and rebirth is called samsara. When a person lives a good life, they earn good karma and get a chance to break free of samsara. If they manage to do this, their soul (atma) will reunite with Waheguru – one of the Sikh names for God.
Some Sikhs believe they may live more than 8 million lives before their souls are pure enough to return to Waheguru.
What happens at a Sikh funeral?
When a Sikh dies, what happens is determined by the person’s culture and family traditions. That said, some Sikh funeral customs stay mostly the same, regardless of the person’s particular beliefs. These are preparing the body, saying prayers together and cremating the body.
Sikhs call their funeral rites Antam Sanskar. This translates as ‘final rite’.
Preparing the body
Sikhs usually begin preparing for a funeral as soon as a person dies. The first step is preparing the body. This is often done by close family members or a Sikh minister.
First, the body is bathed in yoghurt and dressed in clean clothes. They’ll also be given five religious items called the ‘Five Ks’. These are special articles of faith that baptised Sikhs should carry at all times.
The Five Ks are:
- Kesh (uncut hair): Sikhs believe that cutting hair is disrespectful to God because it’s like saying that God did something wrong when creating humans.
- Kangha (a comb): this reminds Sikhs to stay clean and tidy out of respect for God’s creation.
- Kara (an iron bracelet): this symbolises that God is never-ending and reminds Sikhs that they’re part of a special community.
- Kachera (shorts): Sikhs wear this garment to show that they’re prepared for anything.
- Kirpan (a knife): Sikhs carry a kirpan because they’re expected to protect people in need.
Once prepared, the body is often surrounded by flowers. The traditional Sikh funeral flowers are orange and white chrysanthemums.
Saying prayers together
How Sikhs perform a funeral can vary a lot depending on where the funeral happens and what the family wants. Sometimes there’s only one funeral service, which happens before the cremation. Or there may be two services – one before the cremation and another afterwards.
In either case, the ceremony will include several prayers. These include Ardās, an important thanksgiving prayer. Sikh funeral prayers are led by a faith leader called a granthi or by a family member.
The prayer readings often happen in a gurdwara (Sikh temple). Sometimes they take place outdoors, at a crematorium or in a family home.
Cremating the body
Sikhs prefer cremation over burial. This is because they believe the body is useless after death. Burial is sometimes allowed if a person’s body can’t be cremated.
Traditionally, Sikhs are cremated on an outdoor funeral pyre. This still happens in some countries, such as India. However, funeral pyres are not allowed in the UK. Sikhs in this country are cremated in crematoriums instead.
Sikhs sometimes watch the cremation at the crematorium. Usually, only close friends and family members will be invited. They might say a few prayers during the cremation.
After the cremation, the person’s ashes are returned to their family. They’ll often scatter these ashes in a river or the sea.
What happens after a Sikh funeral service?
Unlike with some religions like Islam and Hinduism, there is no set mourning period in Sikhism. However, some Sikhs perform rituals after death if these rituals are part of their culture.
For instance, it’s common for Sikhs to come together and read the Guru Granth Sahib – the Sikh holy book. This reading might take place in one three-day session or separate sessions over a longer period.
How long are Sikh funeral services?
This depends on how you define a Sikh funeral. The prayer ceremony before cremation is what people usually mean when they say ‘Sikh funeral’. This usually lasts between 30 minutes and an hour.
However, if you include preparations and reading the Guru Granth Sahib, the funeral takes much longer. From start to finish, Sikh funeral rituals can last nearly two weeks.
What should I do at a Sikh funeral service?
In Sikhism, death and dying are considered God’s will. The people going to the funeral are expected to remain calm out of respect for God’s decision. This means it’s unlikely you’ll see anyone crying – if they do, they’ll try to sob quietly to themselves.
If you’re going to a Sikh funeral, you should try to control your emotions too. While Sikhism recognises that grief is normal, loud displays of grief are not usually considered appropriate at a Sikh funeral.
Non-Sikhs aren’t expected to take part in prayers or hymns. It’s fine to quietly observe, taking care to sit and stand when other people do.
What should I wear to a Sikh funeral?
The traditional Sikh funeral attire is a white suit or saree. However, it’s common for people to wear dark clothing at Sikh funerals in the UK. As long as you wear something smart and modest, you’ll usually be okay. Bright colours and patterns are best avoided.
You may be expected to wear a head covering too. Often, men wear hats and women wear headscarves. Some gurdwaras will provide these when you arrive.
You might have to take your shoes off, so don’t forget to wear clean, presentable tights or socks.
If you have any doubts about what to wear, it’s best to ask the person arranging the funeral.
How much does a Sikh funeral cost?
It’s difficult to say how much Sikh funerals cost in the UK. There hasn’t been a lot of research on the subject – and the price is likely to vary depending on where you live.
As a rough guide, the average cost for a ‘basic funeral’ in 2021 was £4,056 (SunLife). This average cost doesn’t include ‘extras’ like flowers, catering and transport.
How to arrange a Sikh funeral
Are you arranging a Sikh funeral in the UK? It’s a good idea to find a funeral director who knows about Sikhism and has dealt with Sikh funerals before. They’ll be able to help with things like handling paperwork, looking after the body and organising the cremation.
You could start by reaching out to your local gurdwara for advice. They may be able to recommend a good funeral director. You could also try our free funeral director search tool to find a list of funeral directors near you.
We hope this article answered your questions about Sikh funeral traditions. For more funeral facts and support, visit our advice centre.
Photo by Piero Regnante on Unsplash