Sikh Funerals: The Prayers, Hymns, and Cremation of Antam Sanksar.

Answers to your questions about the news.
Aug. 6 2012 6:02 PM

How Do Sikhs Honor the Dead?

With hymns, prayers, and cremation.

Law enforcement personnel walk outside the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin where at least one gunman fired upon people at a service on August, 5, 2012 Oak Creek, Wisconsin.
Police outside the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin,in Oak Creek, where a gunman fired upon people at a service on Aug. 5.

Photo by Tasos Katopodis/AFP/GettyImages.

Six people were shot and killed by a white supremacist gunman at a Sikh temple (or gurdwara) in Oak Creek, Wis., yesterday. How do Sikhs honor their dead?

L.V. Anderson L.V. Anderson

L.V. Anderson is a Slate assistant editor. She edits Slate's food and drink sections and writes Brow Beat's recipe column, You're Doing It Wrong. 

With a funeral ceremony called antam sanskar. Antam means “final” in Punjabi, the language of Sikh religious texts, while sanskar is a term referring to any rite or ritual. Before the ceremony, the body is washed with water and adorned with the five articles of faith that initiated Sikhs are supposed to carry or wear at all times in life: kesh (uncut hair, which is covered by a turban), kanga (a wooden comb), kachhera (an undergarment resembling a pair of shorts), kara (an iron bracelet), and kirpan (a short sword).

The ceremony usually occurs two to three days after a death and is performed by loved ones with the help of a granthi, the Sikh equivalent of a priest. It usually begins at a funeral parlor immediately before cremation. Mourners sing hymns from the Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh holy text, and recite a bedtime prayer called the Kirtan Sohila and a supplication to God called the Ardas. (Sikhs often refer to God as Waheguru, which means “wonderful teacher,” and recitations of “Waheguru” are common on people’s deathbed and during antam sanskar.) As with Western funerals, the ceremony may also include words of remembrance from friends and family members.  

Advertisement

The body is then cremated and the ashes are scattered in a body of water, although if cremation is impractical, the body can be buried or disposed of in another way. (In modern-day America, cremation is so widely accessible that virtually all American Sikhs are cremated.) After the body is cremated, the mourners go to their temple for a full service including readings from the Guru Granth Sahib, more hymns, and more prayers. The family of the deceased may also follow the funeral ceremony by reading the entire Guru Granth Sahib aloud, which takes about 48 hours. 

Sikhs believe that humans have immortal souls that are reincarnated in different forms depending on one’s earthly actions and on God’s will. As a result, Sikhs are encouraged to see death as a chance for someone to continue his or her journey closer to God. Sikhs don’t bury bodies or ashes in marked graves, because the body is seen as a vessel that becomes empty once the soul has departed.

Sikhism is a monotheistic religion founded by Guru Nanak in the 15th century in Punjab, which today spans parts of Pakistan and northern India. Punjabi India has the world’s highest concentration of Sikhs. There are 25 million Sikhs worldwide, including about 700,000 in the United States, as estimated by the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund. Sikhism was founded as an egalitarian religion, and Sikh funerals, like all Sikh rites, are notable for making no distinction between how men and women are treated.

Got a question about today’s news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Navdeep Singh of the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund.

TODAY IN SLATE

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

I Bought the Huge iPhone. I’m Already Thinking of Returning It.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Students Aren’t Going to College Football Games as Much Anymore

And schools are getting worried.

Two Damn Good, Very Different Movies About Soldiers Returning From War

The XX Factor

Lifetime Didn’t Think the Steubenville Rape Case Was Dramatic Enough

So they added a little self-immolation.

Politics

Blacks Don’t Have a Corporal Punishment Problem

Americans do. But when blacks exhibit the same behaviors as others, it becomes part of a greater black pathology. 

Why a Sketch of Chelsea Manning Is Stirring Up Controversy

How Worried Should Poland, the Baltic States, and Georgia Be About a Russian Invasion?

Trending News Channel
Sept. 19 2014 1:11 PM Watch Flashes of Lightning Created in a Lab  
  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 20 2014 11:13 AM -30-
  Business
Business Insider
Sept. 20 2014 6:30 AM The Man Making Bill Gates Richer
  Life
Quora
Sept. 20 2014 7:27 AM How Do Plants Grow Aboard the International Space Station?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 20 2014 3:21 PM “The More You Know (About Black People)” Uses Very Funny PSAs to Condemn Black Stereotypes
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 6:31 PM The One Big Problem With the Enormous New iPhone
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 20 2014 7:00 AM The Shaggy Sun
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.