Sikh funeral traditions
As Sikhs believe the physical body only houses the soul, cremation is usually preferred. Burial is also accepted, but there will be no headstone or monument allowed.
Organ donations and donating of the body to medical science are both permitted.
Funerals typically take place at a Gurdwara (Sikh temple). They can also take place at the family home or a crematorium.
The coffin may be opened briefly during a Sikh funeral if the body is taken home, or at the Gurdwara before going for cremation, but mainly it remains closed.
Before the funeral
Funeral arrangements usually begin immediately after death, ideally within three days.
On the day before the funeral, the deceased person is washed and dressed at the funeral home. These would typically be older members of the family or friends and will be members of the same gender.
Washing of the body and hair is first with yoghurt, for softening, then with soap and warm water. After bathing, the body of the deceased person will be redressed in clean clothes. The Karkars, the five articles of faith worn by a Sikh in life remain with the body in death. The body then remains at the funeral home overnight.
On the day of the funeral the body may be taken home for a short time (15-20 minutes), during which prayers will be said. These may be led by a priest, although this is not mandatory, and anyone may stand-in.
The Sikh funeral service and etiquette
A Sikh funeral service lasts typically between 30 minutes and an hour and can take many formats.
After the prayers at the house, the body may be taken to the Gurdwara, again for about 20 minutes. The body does not enter the main prayer hall and prayers are said over the body in another room or corridor. All mourners must remove shoes, wash their hands and cover their heads at the Gurdwara.
After prayers at the Gurdwara, the coffin is taken to the crematorium. Sohila is always said at the crematorium; hese are night time prayers which Sikhs say before sleep every day. All then stand for final prayers, asking God to relieve the deceased person from the circle of birth and death.
Non-Sikh guests are not expected to join in with prayers and readings, instead sitting quietly and following movements of the rest of the congregation.
The body is then cremated. Often the nearest family members of either gender observes the cremation.
After the funeral
The family then returns to the Gurdwara for more prayers, lasting about 45 minutes and the serving of vegetarian food to guests. Traditionally food might not be served following the death of a young person, but this distinction is becoming less common in the UK.
There are no specific mourning periods or rituals observed by Sikhs. The return to the Gurdwara may be timed to coincide with the completion of the recitation of Guru Granth Sahib. Guru Granth Sahib can take up to 48 hours and will be read often by members of the priestly class leading up to this time.
Ashes are usually scattered in running water. There is a more significant trend now for this to be done in the UK, although it may still happen in holy places overseas.
What to wear to a Sikh funeral
If you’re unsure of what to wear to a Sikh funeral, it is best to ask the family of the deceased person.
Mourners usually wear modest clothing in dark colours. Heads should be covered, with men wearing a hat or a cap and women wearing a headscarf.
With thanks to Rajinder Singh Bhasin, Education Secretary, Central Gurdwara, London