Sikh funerals — An inside view

Manpreet Singh, Southall Sikh Funerals

Four minute read

As a child, Manpreet Singh remembers going to funerals with his father. Curious, he asked his mother to explain Sikh funeral traditions and wondered why none of the funeral directors he saw were Sikh.

After careers in engineering and retail, Manpreet set out to learn as much as he could about funeral care, and now assists Sikh families with arranging funerals in Southall, West London, not far from where he grew up.

We asked him to share his perspective on Sikh approaches to death and funerals for Talking Death.

Rituals that change and evolve

The Sikh religion focuses on “being good, kind and remembering God,” he explains. “Everything about the last rites and the funeral are designed to send the person off on their journey.”

Manpreet is keen to stress that different families will carry out the rituals in different ways, depending on how religious they are, or simply their personal preference.

One example of how this works in practice is in washing and dressing the person who has died. “This is very important to do,” says Manpreet. “This was a tradition which your family did — however now funeral staff know our rituals and they can carry this out. Males wash males and females wash females. They rub a mix of plain yoghurt and water onto the skin and then wash it off.

“They will say prayers as they do the washing of the person who has died. Sometimes these will be full, long prayers, but if they don’t know these prayers, they can just say part of the prayer or simply repeat the name of God as a mantra.

“I find now that some people in the younger generation are not sure what to do or are scared to take part in washing the dead person. I am here to prepare and guide them or they can observe. I have found that once they get started, they feel confident to complete the wash and dress.”

The timing of the funeral is also flexible. Although, ideally within ten days after someone dies, Manpreet explains that it can take a longer or shorter time.

“In India, traditionally cremation took place within 24 hours of someone dying. When Sikhs first came to this country, it wasn’t always easy to book a crematorium slot quickly, so the tradition of ten days evolved.

“I always encourage families to slow down. I’ll say, you have options, slow down and don’t rush yourself. You might need time to mourn, so that you remember what's happening through every stage of this important time.”

Reading the scriptures and paying final respects

“When a religious person dies, the whole of the Sri Guru Granth Sahib, our Scriptures, will be read out by the priest in the days before the funeral, either at the family home or at the gurdwara. The final parts will be read at the gurdwara on the day of the funeral.

“On the day of the funeral itself, the funeral director takes the person who has died to the family home first. The family will carry the coffin inside. Here, the priest will say prayers, including simple prayers which the family can join in.

“Then the family will gather around the open coffin. When it’s time for them to pay their final respects, they will walk round the coffin and leave flower petals and other small things next to the person for their journey onwards.

“This happens less often today, but traditionally, when the family leave the home for the next part of the ceremony, they will leave a window or door open, so that the person’s spirit can leave and continue its journey.

“More prayers are then said over the coffin in the funeral room of the gurdwara and more last respects are given. Anyone can come to this, as details are announced on the noticeboard at the gurdwara.

Finally, there is a ceremony at the crematorium. The family will press the button to close the curtains, as a way of saying goodbye to the person.

“After the service in the crematorium, most people will leave, but some family members will stay and witness the coffin going into the cremator.”

Like Hindus, Sikhs practise cremation and believe in the reincarnation of the soul. In some cases, the ashes are taken to India to be scattered in running water close to a gurdwara, but they can be scattered in any river that runs out to the sea.

Sharing food after the funeral

However, that’s not all that happens at a Sikh funeral. A central part of Sikh worship is the langar — the vegetarian free meal prepared by volunteers served at any gurdwara. Free food for all is a core principle of Sikh gurdwaras.

“We all sit on the floor together because we are all equal. After that, the final prayers are read and songs, using the words of the prayers, are sung. The priest will give a scarf to the oldest son, if there is one, of the person who has died. This is a symbol that they have become the head of the family now.”

Prayers will also take place on the one-year anniversary of the funeral, so that person is remembered again.

“From start to finish, dignity is important at a Sikh funeral,” concludes Manpreet. “My parents were born in India and I have learnt Sikh traditions from them, and I combine these with my experience as someone born in England.

"When I support families, I’m not here to tell them what to do, I’m here to tell them what their options are. I’m pleased to share that knowledge and to help others.”

Find out more about Manpreet and Southall Sikh Funerals.

How Poppy's can help Sikh clients

  • We offer space for people to wash, dress and to visit someone in our care, and can bring someone home before the funeral.
  • We offer female-only or male-only care on request.
  • We can organise for families to witness the charging. It’s important to decide before booking the crematorium — not all crematoria offer this and those that do usually only allow one a day. We can advise you on your choices and make all the bookings.

Read more interviews on Talking Death — hear Buddhist perspectives on death and dying or meet a Jewish funeral coordinator.

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