Sikh Death Rites
To a Sikh, birth and death are closely associated; both are part of the cycle of human life. Ava Guvan is seen as transient stage towards Nirvana, which is complete unity with God. Sikhs thus believe in reincarnation. Mourning is therefore discouraged, especially in the case of those who have lived a long and full life. The death ceremony may be split into two parts: Saskar (the cremation) and the Antim Ardas, the final prayer at the end of the Bhog ceremony.
At a Sikh’s death-bed, relatives and friends read Sukhmani Sahib, the Psalm of Peace, composed by the fifth Guru Arjan Dev Ji, to console themselves and the dying person. When a death occurs, they exclaim ‘Waheguru,’ the Wonderful Lord. Wailing or lamentation is discouraged.
For the first part, Saskar, or cremation, the body is first washed and dressed with clean clothes complete with the Five K’s (in case of baptised Sikhs). If the death occurs in a hospital, the body is taken home for viewing before the funeral. In Punjab, body will be burnt on the funeral pyre, but in Western countries a crematorium is used. A prayer is said before the start of the funeral to seek salvation for the departed soul. On arrival at the crematorium, a brief speech about the deceased is generally given, the Sohila, bed-time prayer is recited and the Ardas, formal prayer is offered. The cremation is generally done by the eldest son or a close relative. Where cremation is not possible, disposal of the dead body by placing it in the sea or river is permitted. At the end of the cremation the members of the funeral party return to their homes. The ashes are collected after the cremation and later disposed of by immersion in the nearest river or sea. Some families, living outside India, prefer to take the ashes to Punjab. Sikhs do not erect monuments over the remains of the dead.
The second part is called Antim Ardas, the final prayer during the Bhog ceremony which includes a complete reading of Guru Granth Sahib either at home or in a Gurdwara. This is called a Sahaj Path, and is usually completed within ten days. If the family can read, they must take part in the reading; if they cannot, they must sit and listen to it. The reading is meant to provide spiritual support and consolation to the bereaved family and friends. During Ardas, the blessing of God for the departed soul is sought. The Gurus emphasize the remembrance of God’s Name as the best means of consolation for the bereaved family. Sikhs are always exhorted to submit to and have complete faith in the will of God, called Bhana Manna.
Generally, all the relatives and friends of the family gather together for the Bhog ceremony on the completion of the reading of Guru Granth Sahib. Musicians sing appropriate hymns, Saloks of the ninth Guru Tegh Bahadur are read, and Ramkali Saad, the Call of God, is recited. After the final prayer, a random reading or Hukam is taken, and Karah Parshad is distributed to the congregation.
If the deceased person is elderly, food from Guru’s kitchen, Langar, is served. Presents are distributed to grandchildren. Donations are often announced for charities and religious organizations. Sometimes, at the end of the Bhog, eldest member is presented with a turban and declared the new head of the family.