Sikh families usually hold funerals 3 days after the person has died. They typically follow a fairly strict format in which guests wear white and gather to pray.
What are Sikhs’ beliefs about death?
Sikhs celebrate the soul reuniting with God
Sikh funerals balance mourning with celebration. In the Sikh tradition, the funeral celebrates the soul’s reunion with their god, Waheguru.
‘Waheguru’ means wonderful teacher
The Sikh religion originates from the Punjab area of South Asia. In the Punjabi language, ‘wahe’ means wonderful, and ‘guru’ means teacher or enlightener.
The Sikh religion prefers cremation over burial
Sikhs believe in reincarnation. After a person has died, they consider their body an ‘empty vessel’ or ‘empty shell’. They believe that cremation will let the soul detach from the body and reunite with God or Waheguru.
Only close family members will attend the cremation itself. In the days after the cremation, Sikhs scatter the ashes into a flowing water source, like a river or the sea.
What to expect at a Sikh funeral
The Sikh phrase for a funeral is ‘Antam Sanskaar’
Antam Sanskaar is the main part of the funeral. In Punjabi, ‘antam’ means final, and ‘sanskaar’ means rite or ceremony. It usually happens at the gurdwara, (a Sikh place of worship), but it might take place at a crematorium or family home.
A family member or ‘granthi’ (a Sikh minister) will lead the funeral. Sikh funerals tend to be very religious. The ceremony consists of:
A congregational reading of 'Ardas'— a community prayer read at the start of ceremonies.
A daily prayer called Japji, the first verse of the Sikh holy book
Kirtan Sohila, the nighttime prayer.
If you are not a practising Sikh or Punjab speaker, the family will not expect you to read or sing along. You do not need to prepare anything to say, as eulogies are not usually part of the service.
Guests spend between 30 to 60 minutes reciting these prayers before the cremation.
It’s customary to greet the eldest first
If you wish to greet the family at a Sikh funeral, it’s a mark of respect to greet the eldest family member first. Sikhs greet each other by putting their hands together in a prayer position and giving a small bow. If you’d rather, it’s acceptable to shake hands too.
Sikh funerals are usually quiet events, so there might not be an opportunity to greet the family. Often, guests will take their seats straight away. If you’re not sure, you can look around to see what others are doing.
Displays of emotion are not common
In some religious communities, it’s normal to show your grief and sadness at a funeral. It’s slightly different in the Sikh tradition.
For Sikhs, calmness and detachment show respect to God. They also show acceptance of his will. Sikhs believe that cycles of life, death, and rebirth bring them closer to God, which is something they celebrate. Because of this, crying is generally not approved of.
Instead, you might hear Sikh attendees chanting ‘Waheguru’. By chanting the name of their God, Sikhs express their devotion to him.
Sikhs might also chant the word ‘akal’ throughout the service, which means ‘undying’.
No two funerals are the same
It’s common to feel unsure about how you should act at a funeral. Our guide to British funeral etiquette will help you to understand the rituals and customs you might encounter.
Dress code and gifts for Sikh funerals
Mourning Sikh families wear white
Unlike Western funerals where guests usually wear black, Sikh mourners wear white.
Both men and women wear white robes (known as ‘banas’). These can be knee-length or ankle-length. If they’re knee-length, guests might wear trousers underneath.
Both men and women cover their heads for a funeral. Men wear a hat or turban, and women wear a headscarf.
Whether the funeral is at a Sikh home or a gurdwara (the Sikh place of worship), it’s respectful to remove your shoes and cover your head. But you do not necessarily have to wear white robes. For non-Sikh attendees, it’s acceptable to wear simple, modest clothing in black, grey, or navy blue.
If you’re unsure, you can check with whoever is arranging the funeral about what to wear.
The grieving family will not usually expect gifts
You may have bought flowers or bottles of wine for grieving friends and family. But if you’re going to a Sikh funeral, the family will not usually expect you to bring anything.
Flower arrangements are very specific in Sikh funerals. The traditional mourning flowers in India are orange and white chrysanthemums. The family arranges these around the person who’s died.
You might be used to bringing food or drink to grieving friends or family. If you’d like to show a Sikh family your support, a vegetarian dish might be very welcome. Most practising Sikhs are vegetarians and gather to eat after the funeral.
Things like wine and spirits are not appropriate, as most Sikhs do not drink alcohol.
What happens after a Sikh funeral
‘Akhand Path’ follows the funeral
After the funeral ceremony and the following meal, Sikh families attend a reading of the holy scriptures. This part of the proceedings is called Akhand Path. This phrase translates to ‘uninterrupted reading’.
This can last anywhere between 3 and 10 days.
Traditionally, Granthis and community members will read the holy book, the Siri Guru Granth Sahib, non-stop. Granthis are ceremonial readers of the holy book. In more recent times, it’s become acceptable to space out the reading over 10 days. Sikhs can even listen to a full reading online.
The Siri Guru Granth Sahib contains teachings and songs
Many of the passages are set to musical scales. Sikhs believe these songs to be deeply healing and awakening. Reading them as a community is a way for Sikhs to meditate, learn, and take comfort.
If you’re not a practising Sikh, the people organising the funeral will not usually expect you to attend Akhand Paath. You can ask the family of the person who’s died or the people organising the funeral if you’re not sure.
Arranging funerals and cremations