"We are destined to die, as death is an essential part of the life-cycle." These words of Guru Tegh Bahadur (reigned 1664–1675 C.E.), the ninth of the ten Indian Gurus who founded Sikhism, typify the approach to death of Sikhs. Death for this religion's 20 million members is an essential path in the journey of life and not to be feared. Death is followed by rebirth through transmigration—literally, metempsychosis, the passage of the soul of a human being or animal after death into a new body of the same or a different species, an understanding common to Sikhism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Hinduism—unless, through faith and divine favor, the deceased individual is endowed with the knowledge of God ( Brahm Gyani ) and released from the cycle of life, death, and rebirth (the laws of karma). Nevertheless, according to Guru Nanak (1469–1539 C.E.), the first Guru and founder of the line of Gurus, or inspired teachers, "rare are such men in the world whom after testing God has gathered unto his treasury."
At the deathbed of a Sikh, the relatives and friends console themselves and the departing soul by reading the religious hymns of the Sikh Gurus ( Gurbani ), especially Sukhmani, the Psalm of Peace, written by the fifth Guru, Arjan (reigned 1581–1606). When death occurs, no loud lamentations are allowed. Instead, the Sikhs chant Wahiguru Wahiguru ("Hail to the Guru," or "Wonderful Lord"). All dead bodies, whether those of children or of adults, are cremated, usually within twenty-four hours in the Indian subcontinent, but this may occur several days later in other countries where the body can be more easily preserved. Where cremation is not possible, it is permissible to throw the dead body into a sea or river.
The dead body is washed and dressed in new clothes (in the case of a male, complete with the five symbols of the Khalsa, the body of initiated Sikhs instituted in 1699 C.E.) before it is taken out on a bier to the cremation ground. The procession starts after a prayer, with the participants singing suitable hymns from the Sikh scriptures ( Guru Granth Sahib ) on the way. At the cremation ground, the body is placed on the pyre, the Ardas is recited, and the nearest relative (usually the eldest son) lights the pyre. When the fire is fully ablaze, Sohila is read and prayers are offered for the benefit of the dead. People then come away and leave the relatives of the deceased at their door, where they are thanked before departing.
The bereaved family, for the comfort of their own souls as well as for the peace of the departed, start a reading of the holy Guru Granth Sahib either at their own house or at a neighboring temple ( gurdwara ). Friends and relations take part. After a week or so they again come together when the reading is finished. The usual prayer is offered and the holy food or sacrament ( karah prasad ) is distributed. The charred bones of the dead, together with the ashes, are taken from the cremation ground three or four days later and, where this is permitted, thrown into the nearest canal or river (this is not allowed in the West, and therefore relatives often take the ashes to Punjab, India, to be disposed of there). It is forbidden to erect monuments over the remains of the dead, although a suitable monument in the person's honor at another place is permissible.
McLeod, William Hewat. Exploring Sikhism: Aspects of Sikh Identity, Culture, and Thought. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Oberoi, Harjot. The Construction of Religious Boundaries: Culture, Identity, and Diversity in the Sikh Tradition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.
Singh, Harbans, ed. The Encyclopaedia of Sikhism, 2nd edition. Patiala, India: Punjabi University, 1995–1998.