If you’ve been invited to a Sikh funeral but you’re not sure about the etiquette involved, this short article will help you. You may be close to a Sikh family, but the rituals and beliefs might not be something you’ve talked about – and that’s normal.
What’s also normal, is to be a little nervous about asking practical questions at this time, especially if the family and their friends are in mourning and busy, arranging the funeral. If in doubt, speak to the funeral director. Most funeral directors in the UK can arrange a Sikh funeral – and we can certainly put you in touch with a funeral director in your area who can advise you.
Sikhism and beliefs about death
The Sikh funeral itself is an event that’s known as Antam Sanskaar, which means ‘the last rite of passage’. The ceremony itself focuses on celebrating the fact that the person’s soul has an opportunity to re-join Waheguru – the Wondrous Giver of Knowledge (which is the Sikh name for God). A Sikh believes that the event of a person’s death is an opportunity to break out of the cycle of transmigration, in which the soul never dies. It is a celebration, not a loss.
As a result, Sikh funerals can vary widely in the way they happen. For some families, it will be a tradition to have one service before the cremation and one after, at the Sikh place of worship – the gurdwara. For others, there will be a simple cremation with a few prayers – and in either case, the funeral may take place during the day or night. However, most Sikh funerals will include an opportunity to hear the recital of a community prayer and daily prayers. Don’t worry, if you are not Sikh then you won’t be expected to take part.
These services may take place at the home of the bereaved family, at the gurdwara, outdoors, or at the crematorium – and the funeral service itself is relatively reserved in emotion; mourners prefer to show they are resigned to God’s will, rather than sharing pain and grief in public.
Attending a Sikh funeral
Depending on the traditions being respected by the family, there may be an open casket at a Sikh funeral. However, cremation is preferred. (In the UK, our regulations mean this happens at a crematorium but in other countries a Sikh cremation is likely to take place with an outdoor funeral pyre. After the cremation, the person’s ashes are likely to be respectfully scattered in flowing water; you may or may not be invited to watch this.
During the service, you’ll be invited to watch rather than try and take part in prayers and readings. Follow the lead of others at the service and sit or stand when they do.
At a Sikh funeral, it’s perfectly acceptable to wear casual but smart clothes, as long as you don’t wear bright patterns. As a non-Sikh, it is respectful to cover your head with either a cap, hat, pashmina or headscarf. In short, dress modestly, make sure your arms are covered – and remember that you’ll be expected to remove your shoes when you enter either the person’s home or the location where the gurdwara ceremony is being held.
Being respectful, taking advice
If you’re still feeling anxious about attending a Sikh funeral, the best thing you can do is talk to the funeral director. It’s their job to make sure everything goes smoothly, and they can guide you as to what to expect and how your presence can help the family most.
Take a look at Muslim funerals.