Death & Death Ceremonies

(From Victory and Virtue: Ceremonies & Code of Conduct of Sikh Dharma)

To a Sikh, death is reunion with the Beloved Creator; it is a time of joy, because the soul has longed for this moment since it was separated from Him. As human beings, however, we feel sadness at the loss of someone we cared for and loved. The time of death is an opportunity to re-examine and re-affirm our faith and acceptance of the Will of God. A confirmed faith in the reality of reincarnation, and an understanding of the journey of the soul, give us the strength and insight to cope with the death of even our loved ones.

The Sikh Concept of Death

The Guru speaks of the cycle of reincarnation, the 8.4 million species of beings, and the ways in which actions, karmas, bind the soul to to this cycle. The soul is not subject to death—death is merely the turning of the page in the book of the soul’s journey from God, through the created universe, back to God again.

The Guru instructs us to live with the constant remembrance of death, living the Rehit Maryada. We are to act and interact as if we are about to die in the next instant. We are to maintain a preparedness of mind, a meditative attitude, so that, if we were to die in the next instant, we would be ready to answer for our actions in the Presence of the Dharm-Raj, the Lord of Dharma, the Righteous Judge. Regret and attachment will bind us to the cycle of reincarnation, while meditative balance and detachment will allow us to pass through the stages of release, as our soul finds its way to its true home in God.

The Yogic Concept of Death

There are Ten Bodies which comprise the human being incarnate. The soul (the spiritual body) is the finite part of the spirit. The subtle body is the capsule which carries the soul; the soul leaves the body in the capsule of the subtle body. The subtle body reflects the clarity of your commitment, your Dharmic faith and practice.

At the moment of death, the mental body (positive, negative and neutral) tries to send a final impression, a message to the dying person; this reflects the samskaras, the unbalanced impressions and residues left over from the karma of the person’s life. These residues may cause the dying person to attach him or herself to past memories, hopes, regrets, etc., thus interfering with the soul’s liberation. The practice of meditation is the most effective way of resolving these conflicts, and shedding these desires, frustrations and attachments, both positive and negative.

The soul is given a choice, between a warm, cozy, dark space, and a cool, quiet, white snowy light. This is called the magnetic field; if your Dharmic commitment is strong, you will naturally choose the white, snowy path, and you will continue on your spiritual evolution. Choosing the warm, cozy space leads to re-incarnation and more karma. Your spiritual teacher can guide you through the magnetic field; he has the power to extend his consciousness, to penetrate to the third ether, and pass your soul into the fourth ether, during the ambrosial hours of the Amrit Vela.

The soul, on its journey of passage, must pass through and escape the earth’s magnetic field. Those souls who do not are called ghosts. One of the advantages of cremation is that it denies the soul this vehicle of attachment.

Additional Resources:

Crossing the Hour
Dying Into Life

The Role of a Sikh Minister at the Time of Death

As a Minister of Sikh Dharma, you may be called upon to counsel someone as he or she approaches death; you may be called upon to counsel relatives or friends; you may be called upon to take charge of the death services and funeral arrangements. There are legal issues as well as emotional issues involved. You will need a personal understanding and appreciation of the Sikh concept of death, as well as the legal requirements involved.

The following guidelines should assist you in leading the Sangat through this time:

  • As the person is approaching death, remind him or her to concentrate upon God and Guru; remind him or her not to be afraid, but to trust in God’s Will and in Guru’s power and protection.
  • Gurbani Kirtan is a powerful way to invoke one’s feelings of trust and intimate relationship with God and Guru; let it be playing if possible. Chanting Sukhmani Sahib at this time is especially helpful in bringing peace to the mind.
  • As the soul leaves the body, recite Japji Sahib.
  • Chanting “Akaal” at the time of death guides the soul to pass out of this worldly realm and into the Akaal Purakh, the Undying Being.
  • After death, the body should be prepared for the funeral with a yogurt bath, while the Mul Mantra is recited. Let the yogurt dry on the body; do not wash it off. The body is then dressed in new clothes, a new turban, and the five K’s.
  • At the funeral, Ardas is recited to start the service. Then, the Minister and others may offer words, recitations, etc.
  • The body of a Sikh is always cremated, never buried. The body should be cremated as soon as possible, within three days of death.
  • When the cremation begins, Japji Sahib is read, followed by Kirtan Sohila; these two banis should continue to be read alternately until the cremation is completed. Another Ardas at the completion of the cremation is appropriate, praying for the release and easy transition of the soul on its journey home to God.
  • While we, as human beings, feel a sense of loss and grief at such times, we are reminded to remember the Guru’s Words and to accept the Will of God. It is a time to contemplate the reality which the Guru has revealed to us; death is a journey home, an escape from this world of illusion and pain, a time when the soul of the Sikh merges with the Beloved Creator Lord. Excessive displays of mourning were specifically discouraged by the Gurus. To console those who are especially distressed at this time, Ramkali Sad (page 823 of Siri Guru Granth Sahib) or Jaitsree ki Vaar (page 706) are helpful.
  • After the funeral, the Sangat should gather before the Guru, and recite Rehiras and Gurbani Kirtan; a shared Lungar after this Gurdwara service is uplifting and strengthening.
  • Beginning on the day of death, and for a total of seventeen days, Kirtan Sohila is to be read daily; this facilitates the transition of the soul from the physical body.
  • An Akhand Paath should begin as soon as possible, as can alternative ten-day Sahej Paaths.

Legal Aspects of Death & Cremation

The events which follow the death of a person vary a great deal, depending on the circumstances of death. Each state and municipality has its own set of laws and procedures governing the handling, preparation, and disposition of the body. As a Minister, you should become familiar with local laws and regulations and procedures, to avoid difficulties and delays at the time of death. Your local laws may differ from those described here.

Generally, most municipalities and counties (or whatever political entity governs the “health and welfare” of your area) have one procedure to be followed when death occurs in a hospital, and a different procedure when it occurs somewhere else (home, work, recreation, etc.).

When death occurs in the hospital, the attending physician determines the official cause of death, and files a “death certificate.” The body can then be transported to a funeral home, where it is prepared for cremation. If death occurs outside of a hospital or medical facility, it is best to call the police. The body will have to go to the local “Medical Examiner,” a forensic physician who is employed by the local government to determine the official cause of death in such circumstances. This physician may work at a morgue or at a hospital.

If the cause of death is not immediately obvious to the Medical Examiner, an autopsy will usually be required by local laws. While an autopsy may be a traumatic and upsetting process to many, it is, unfortunately, not negotiable. It is a detailed examination done to determine if “foul play” entered into the death, and whether or not there is any public health hazard involved.

There will probably be questions from the police about the circumstances of death; you may or may not wish to have a lawyer present for these questions.

The body is usually cleared for disposition after the Medical Examiner or attending physician has completed the death certificate. Be sure to obtain several copies of this. This can be done after cremation. Check with the local government agency which handles these documents, (i. e., Department of Vital Statistics) or call the Medical Examiner to find out where you can obtain copies. These will be required for many purposes, including, for example, the collection of life insurance proceeds.

It is the responsibility of the family to arrange transportation of the body from the morgue or hospital to a funeral home. These arrangements are made directly with the funeral home.

Once the body arrives at the funeral home, preparation for the cremation may begin. Be advised that, if an autopsy was performed, the body may have large incisions, crudely stitched sutures, discolorations, and other markings that may be disturbing to children and some family members. As a Minister, use your judgment as to who is most appropriate to assist in preparing the body, and who would be best kept from observing the body until it has been prepared for cremation. Unless an autopsy is required by law, as Sikhs we prefer that an autopsy not be performed, though it is left to personal choice. Also, as Sikhs, we prefer to not have any embalming fluid used on the remains of the deceased. Whether the deceased is displayed in an open or closed casket, and organ donation are personal choices.

The body is prepared for cremation by rubbing it with fresh home-made yogurt, dressing it in full bana, with the five K’s, and wrapping it in a clean white sheet. A clean white cotton turban might serve this purpose instead of a sheet. Local regulations often require that the body is cremated in a casket. While many funeral homes may encourage the family to purchase an elaborate and expensive casket, a simple wooden casket is most appropriate.

The funeral service may be held at the funeral home, or at the cremation site. The funeral home will transport the body to the crematorium.

The person who is responsible for decisions regarding the preparation and disposition of the body is determined by the will of the deceased. The will should name a specific person to act as the “personal representative,” “executor,” or “administrator” (the terminology varies from state to state). If no one is named in the will, if the will cannot be found, or if there is no will, then the closest living relative to the deceased (usually the spouse, parent or child) makes these decisions. A lawyer should be consulted immediately since the official appointment of a personal representative or executor is made by a state court. This person will make the final decisions about preparation and cremation. To ensure that the deceased is handled in a manner appropriate to the Sikh traditions, your input and answers to questions will be most valuable. The deceased person’s spouse, parent or child, or their representative, (such as a Minister) can make arrangements with the funeral home and take care of the special requests involved in preparing the body of a Sikh for cremation

It is important, prior to one’s death, for a person to take care of certain legal preparations. By doing so, one can greatly help his or her family through this transition. As a Sikh Minister, one should encourage adult members of the Sadh Sangat to be sure that these preparations are in order. These preparations include:

1) A “Living Will,” which is the common name for a Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care. Although the particulars vary from state to state, this is a document by which a person gives binding instructions for his or her own medical care should one still be alive but have medical or mental conditions making one unable to communicate. In a “Living Will” a person can state how much or how little effort one wants made to keep himself or herself alive. One can also name a person to make the final decision on whether or not to keep one on life-support equipment. A “Living Will” can also confirm that, as a Sikh, one does not want to be embalmed and that one does not want to take part in organ donation. Consult a local lawyer on the preparation of a “Living Will” In many states, simple comprehensive “Living Will” forms are available. Some states require one to renew one’s “Living Will” periodically.

2) A “Will” and a “Living Trust” are documents in which a person determines, prior to his or her death, how his or her affairs will be handled after death. For example, if a person has minor children, he or she can name the proposed guardians. One can also name one person, often called an Executor, to take care of his or her affairs after his or her death in accordance with the instructions in the Will. A person can instruct the Executor to have his or her remains cremated and have final rites according to the practices of Sikh Dharma. He or she can also state how to distribute his or her property after death. A “Living Trust” is used in conjunction with a “Will” when one has more than a modest amount of personal and/or real property. A “Living Trust” usually helps one’s family avoid the time and expense of going through ‘probate,’ which is the court process of approving one’s Will. Since the laws regarding “Wills” and “Living Trusts” vary from state to state, it is best to retain the services of a qualified attorney to properly prepare these documents.