Antam Sanskaar: the Sikh Funeral Ceremony

In Sikhism—one of the major religions of the Indian subcontinent—a funeral service consists of a cremation ceremony known as Antam Sanskaar, roughly translated as "celebration of the completion of life". Rather than lamenting the passing of an individual, Sikhism teaches resignation to the will of the creator, emphasizing that death is a natural process and an opportunity for reunion of the soul with its maker.

Here are some things to know about the Anam Sanskaar funeral ceremony.

The Final Moments of Life in Sikhism

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Sikh Funeral Service. Photo © [S Khalsa]

In the final moments of life, and at the time of passing, the Sikh family encourages their ailing loved one to focus on the divine by reciting Wahegurucomforting passages of scripture from the Guru Granth Sahib.

In Sikhism, after a death occurs, the family makes arrangements for a funeral that will include conducting a Sadharan Paath—a complete reading of the Guru Granth Sahib—Sikhism's holy text. The Sadharan Paath is carried out over a period of ten days following the Antam Sanskaar funeral ceremony, after which formal mourning concludes.

Preparation of the Deceased

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Procession to Crematorium. Photo © [S Khalsa]

The body of a deceased Sikh is bathed and attired in clean clothing. The hair is covered with a turban or traditional scarf as usually worn by the individual. The karkars, or five articles of faith worn by a Sikh in life, remain with the body in death. They include:

  1. Kachhera, an undergarment.
  2. Kanga, a wooden comb.
  3. Kara, a steel or iron bracelet.
  4. Kes, uncut hair (and beard).
  5. Kirpan, a short sword.

Funeral Services

Antam Sanskar Kirtan
Antam Sanskar Kirtan. Photo © [S Khalsa]

In Sikhism, a funeral ceremony may take place at any convenient time of day or night, and it be either formal or informal. Sikh funeral services are meant to induce detachment and promote resignation to the will of the divine. A service may be conducted:

  • Out of doors.
  • In a gurdwara.
  • At a funeral home.
  • At the home of relatives.

Every Sikh funeral service, however simple or complex, consists of reciting the final prayer of the day, Kirtan Sohila, and the offering of Ardas. Both may be performed prior to cremation, the scattering of ashes, or otherwise disposing of remains.

Reading Akhand Paath
Reading Akhand Paath. Photo © [S Khalsa]

 The ceremony in which the Sadharan Paath is begun may be held when convenient, wherever the Guru Granth Sahib is present:

  • Hymns are sung from the scripture of the Guru Granth.
  • The first five and final verses of Anand Sahib, the "Song of Bliss," are recited or sung.
  • The first five verses of Sikhism's morning prayer, Japji Sahib , are read aloud to begin the Sadharan Paath.
  • Hukam, or random verse, is read from the Guru Granth.
  • Ardas, a prayer, is offered.
  • Prashad, a sacred sweet, is distributed.
  • Langar, a meal, is served to guests.

While the Sadharan Paath is being read, the family may also sing hymns daily. Reading may take as long as needed to complete the paath; however formal mourning does not extend beyond ten days.

Family and friends of the deceased often conduct memorial services yearly commemorating the anniversary of their loved ones passing, which may include participating in devotional reading, or a Kirtan program—singing devotional hymns that offer solace to the bereaved. More »

The Yearning Soul Engaged in Simran and Singing
The Yearning Soul Engaged in Simran and Singing. Photo © [S Khalsa]

 Hymns sung at a Sikh funeral offer solace to the bereaved by emphasizing the blending of the departed soul with the divine. The hymns are compositions taken from the Guru Granth Sahib, including:

  • "In life and in death, peace resides with those who attain their Guru."
  • "My light merges with the Supreme light, and my labors are over."
  • "The sunbeam blends with sunlight and the water drop is absorbed into water becoming saturated."
  • "Oudak samund salal kee saakhiaa nadee tarang "samaaveh-gae" ("Like droplets of water are in an ocean wave and the ripples of a stream, I am immersed in the Lord."
More »

Cremation

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Sikhs Carry Casket to Cremation Site. Photo © [S Khalsa]

In Sikhism, cremation is the usual method for disposing of bodily remains, regardless of the age of the deceased. In many parts of the world, a Sikhism funeral involves an open-air funeral pyre.

In the United States where there is no provision for such proceedings, cremation takes place in a crematory at a mortuary or funeral home. The crematory may open directly to a room where funeral services are held, or it may be in a separate location on the premises of the mortuary.

Disposal of Ashes

Final Moments of Day
Final Moments of Day. [Nirmal Jot Singh]

After the cremation, the funeral home releases the cremated remains of the deceased to the family. Sikhism recommends that the ashes of the deceased be buried in the earth, or scattered over or immersed in flowing water, such as a river or ocean.

Other Burial Options

Burial At Sea
Burial At Sea. Photo © [S Khalsa]

Sikhism allows for other burial methods when cremation is not a practical option. Intact remains of the deceased may be immersed in water, buried in the earth, or disposed of appropriately by whatever suitable means deemed necessary because of extenuating circumstances.

Inappropriate Mourning

Grave Markers and Tombs
Grave Markers and Tombs. Photo © [S Khalsa]

Ritualized mourning is considered contrary to Sikh belief. Inappropriate customs and practices to be avoided in Sikhism include:

  • Lighting a lamp to guide the soul.
  • Offering donations on behalf of the soul.
  • Austerities performed on behalf of the soul.
  • Organized grieving, such as wailing and lamentation.
  • Marking a grave site with a gravestone or monument.
  • Piercing the skull during cremation for release of the soul.
Antam Sanskar Procession to Crematory
Antam Sanskar Procession to Crematory. Photo © [S Khalsa]

See this article on Antam Sanskaar funeral rites for further practical guidance regarding:

  • Grief and mourning
  • Offering assistance
  • Conduct and attire
  • Honoring the deceased
  • Funeral rites and services
More »