Birth is the arrival of a being on Earth; marriage signifies the being’s transition into marital life and then, frequently, family life. The being’s departure from this world signifies the end of life. Across various cultures, people have developed traditions surrounding such events, incorporating specific rites, rituals, customs, and cultural practices. Every culture has its own way of welcoming a newborn, celebrating the joy of marital union, and mourning and bidding farewell to the deceased.

Similarly, the Sikh tradition considers the following four important phases of human life: birth, initiation, marriage, and death. In the ‘Sikh Rahit Maryada’
The title of the ‘Sikh Code of Conduct and Conventions’ published by the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, Sri Amritsar, is 'Sikh Reht Maryada.’ But in this project, it is spelled as 'Sikh Rahit Maryada,’ as it is linguistically more apt.
(The Sikh Code of Conduct and Conventions), which has been approved by the Panth and published by the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, Amritsar, these occasions have been described as ‘birth and naming ceremony’ (janam te nam sanskar), ‘initiation ceremony’ (amrit sanskar), ‘wedding ceremony’ (anand sanskar), and ‘funeral ceremony’ (mirtak sanskar). The first three ceremonies are already available to explore. Here, the regional Panjabi folk rituals associated with the traditional funeral ceremony and the Sikh funeral ceremony, including the Sabads recited or sung during these rites, are discussed.

Funeral Ceremony
Funeral ceremonies hold a significant place in human culture and are known to differ significantly across various regions and religions. Irrespective of the cultural and religious differences, the primary motive of these ceremonies is to pay tribute and cherish the memories of the deceased.

The Sikh funeral ceremony is crucial to Sikh culture as it emphasizes the belief in the impermanence of life, the significance of commemorating the departed with affection and admiration and establishing a connection with IkOankar (the Divine).

Death is essentially the end of human life; the rites, rituals, and customs related to it are included in the funeral ceremony. The primary aim of this ceremony is to return the dead body to the natural elements from which it is formed through fire, water, soil, etc.

Funeral Ceremony as per Panjabi Folk Culture
Adapted from Dr. Nahar Singh, Panjabian Da Maut Darshan, pages 26-33.

Folk culture is rooted in folk religion or beliefs. Folk religion can be described as an amalgamation of different beliefs of various religions. Through the grace of the Gurus and Gurbani, many Sikhs embraced a new, Guru-centered lifestyle. However, with the passage of time, owing to regional influences, some beliefs have become prevalent among Sikhs globally.

According to popular Panjabi folk belief, the vocalizations of jackals, owls, bulls, and dogs signify an impending death. Tethered cattle are believed to become agitated, and oil lamps are extinguished when the Divine beckons the being for the union.

Various religious communities of the region observe Panjabi folk beliefs, and frequently engage with them in unique ways, often intersecting with their respective religious traditions. In Sikh families, Gurbani is typically recited beside a Sikh individual during their final moments. In Muslim families, pouring Zamzam water (Abe Zamzam)
There is a well near the Kaaba in Mecca. The act of drinking from this well is regarded as sacred among Muslims.
into the person’s mouth is customary. The Kalma
Kalma represents the foundational tenet of Islam. According to this, there is no one worthy of worship except Allah, and Muhammad is recognized as the Prophet of Allah.
is recited repeatedly, urging the being to recite it in their final moments. Additionally, the 36th Surah of the Quran (Surah Yaseen) is recited. For Hindu families, Vedic mantras are recited while water from the Ganges or another body of water is poured into the person’s mouth. In the Panjabi folk belief, it is said that when the ‘messengers of death’ extract the life force, a death rattle (a sound that is caused by the friction of the breath against the larynx) occurs. At this, some families lower the deceased from their bed as peaceful liberation is believed to be more likely if a person passes directly on the floor.

Regardless of the unique religious community, the moment the being takes their last breath, wailing and weeping erupt in the home. For families who cremate their deceased, the cremation time is fixed, usually before sunset; meanwhile, friends, relatives, and community members are informed.

Before the dead body is placed on the bier, a final ablution is performed using a new pot, soap, and curd. If the deceased is elderly, a brass bucket is used. A pit collects the water spilled during ablution called a ‘lad.’ A lit lamp is left at the lad until the bones of the deceased are collected post-cremation.

After the body is bathed, a kafan
The shroud in which, after wrapping the deceased, Muslims bury the body, while Hindus and Sikhs cremate.
is wrapped around the deceased. The stitching of the kafan is done using thread from the kafan itself. If a thread from a separate spool of thread is used, then the spool and the needle are burned with the kafan. The length of the kafan is a quarter to five yards (paune panj gaj). Similarly, a white sheet placed on the deceased is also measured as one-quarter less than a whole (pauna). Folk Panjabi socio-culture carries certain beliefs regarding one-quarter more than a whole (svaya) and one-quarter less than a whole (pauna). The clothes, money, etc., gifted during a celebratory occasion are all given in terms of swaya, that is, in increasing quantity. In contrast, the clothes, money, etc., provided at the time of death are either given in terms of paune, that is, in a reduced quantity or given in an exact quantity. Thus, the kafan is always reduced by one-quarter. If the deceased was unmarried, the kafan is brought by the maternal relatives. If the deceased was married, the kafan of a male is brought by his in-laws, and that of a female is brought by her parental family. If a deceased woman is survived by her husband, her parental family brings ornaments along with the kafan. After the final bath, the deceased woman is adorned with these bangles and ornaments before being wrapped in the kafan.

A ladder-like bier of green sticks of jujube or bamboo tied with rope is made to carry the dead body to the pyre. In recent times, a sturdier bier made of iron, aluminum, or steel is used in most villages and cities.

Before taking the dead body to the cremation ground, it is placed on the bier for some time for the final viewing. Friends, relatives, and community members place shawls, blankets, and woolen sheets on the deceased as a sign of respect. Earlier, this ritual was reserved for the deceased’s in-laws; however, now, close friends, relatives, and community members participate in this ritual. After this, wheat grains are put in a plate, basin, or pan near the deceased’s feet. Family members, friends, relatives, and community members put money on this plate, bow to the deceased, and bid their final farewell. Later, these grains, money, and the pot used for final ablution are given to the ‘lagi.’
During the occasions of weddings and mourning’s, the workers (kammi), barbers (nai), water carriers (jhivar), bards (mirasi), jesters (bhand) who work at the house are known as ‘lagi.’

In some families, if the deceased was elderly and had a large family, the bier is decorated with balloons, kites, and colored papers. Such a bier is called a ‘palki.’ When this palki is taken towards the cremation ground, a troupe of musicians leads the procession. In other families, sometimes, Sabads from Gurbani are sung instead with drums (dholki) and cymbals (chaina). Sugar-drops (patasa), raisins, almonds, lotus nuts, popped grams, and money is showered over the palki in a ritual called ‘baban kadhna.’

Those who carry the bier of the dead body to the cremation ground are called ‘kanhi.’ The kanhi are usually the sons and grandsons of the deceased. Typically, other people also take turns carrying the bier. If the deceased was unmarried, anyone among the father, maternal uncles, or brothers may carry the bier. The son-in-law or the husband of the father’s sister is typically not allowed to carry the bier. Contemporarily, in households with no son, the son-in-law takes the responsibility of carrying the bier. Lending a hand during the final rites of the deceased by carrying the bier, carrying wood for the pyre, or preparing the pyre is considered a good deed in Panjabi culture.

In some families, an ‘adhwasa’ or ‘chor bhulai’ ritual is performed at an intersection near the cremation ground. As part of this ritual, the bier is placed on the ground after revolving it counterclockwise at the intersection. Two dough balls (pind) are placed at the feet of the deceased and are believed to provide sustenance for the recently departed. After pouring water into an empty pitcher, a close relative pours out the water while circumambulating the body counterclockwise, then forcefully breaks the pitcher at the side of the feet. Some cremation grounds also have fixed platforms to perform this ritual. After this, the men carrying the bier at the head of the deceased switch to carry the bier from the feet and vice-versa and continue to the cremation ground.

After laying the deceased on the pyre, the ropes of the bier and all the knots tied to the hands, feet, and head of the deceased are untied as a symbolic gesture of setting the deceased free. Both arms are straightened, and the hands are placed palms up at the side or on the chest. In some families, water from the Ganges, honey, or ghee is put in the mouth of the deceased. The remaining ghee and ingredients are spread over the pyre. For some Hindu families, after covering the body with wood, Garur Puran is recited. In Sikh families, a final ardas
Literally meaning a prayer or supplication, ardas is usually done at the beginning or end of any ceremony or during a congregational gathering.  Devotees also do it on any joyous occasion or when faced with a difficult situation.
is offered instead. To light the pyre with a saccharum sara (sarkanda) torch, one moves counterclockwise around the four corners of the pyre. Typically, only the son or the closest relative is allowed to perform this ritual. If the deceased had multiple sons, the eldest son ignites the torch and hands it to the younger son, and so on. In this way, all the sons, from the eldest to the youngest, participate in this ritual collectively.

In some Hindu communities, after the pyre is fully ignited, the person who lit it performs a ritual called ‘kapal kirya.’ In this ritual, the deceased’s skull is tapped gently three times with a bamboo stick. Then, the stick is thrown over the burning pyre toward the feet. Gathered friends and relatives break dry straw and throw it over the pyre, symbolizing the severing of their relationship with the deceased. According to folk belief, evil spirits dwell in the cremation grounds. To protect themselves from these spirits, those who attended the cremation washed their hands and faces and sprinkled water over their heads on returning home. After the cremation, women fold together the four corners of their headscarves (chunnis) and wash them. After this, a woman belonging to a barber family sprinkles water on them. All the women stand with their backs towards the house of the deceased. This, too, is considered a safeguard from evil spirits and a gesture of severing the relationship with the deceased.

On the second or third day after the cremation, close relatives gather at the cremation ground to collect the deceased cremains. They carry with them four half-cooked rotis in one hand and four cooked rotis in the other, a pitcher of water, a lamp made of flour, a ball of yarn, wooden nails, a small wooden spade for sifting through the ashes, an unused white cloth, and raw buttermilk (lassi). At the time of cremation, on the side where the head of the deceased was placed, a lamp is lit, and the rotis are placed there. All the cremains are collected by sifting through the ashes with a spade. These cremains are washed with raw buttermilk and tied in a cloth or placed in a pot and covered with a red cloth. After collecting the ashes, they are given the form of a temporary tomb, and nails are hammered into the four corners. These nails are then tied with a thread wrapped counterclockwise seven times, and thus, the temporary tomb is sealed. If the deceased is a woman, the tomb is covered with a cloth from the parental family.

In earlier customs, some families tied cremains to a pipal or sacred fig tree at the cremation ground, and on a certain day, they would be taken to the Ganges to be scattered. At the beginning of the journey to the Ganges, the deceased person’s name was called out to come along. If the journey was taken by bus, car, or train, a penny was thrown on the ground first in the name of the deceased. In the past, some families bought a ticket for the deceased and left an unoccupied seat for them. If the deceased was an elderly woman, her brother or nephew would accompany the group to scatter the remains. At Pahoy, following the immersion of ashes into the Ganges River, some Hindu families conducted worship in honor of the departed, accompanied by donation and the ritual of ‘pind bharai’ (casting off round dough balls in the Ganges). The name and address of the deceased were recorded in the permanent record books of the pandits.

For millions around the globe, folk beliefs play an important role in identity and community building. Many Panjabi families in South Asia and globally follow folk beliefs and folk religious customs in funeral ceremonies to this day. While it is important to acknowledge the diversity of cultural practices around death, it is necessary to note the Sikh Rahit Maryada does not endorse nor recommend the traditions and customs mentioned above. Instead, considering Sikh principles, the Sikhs are encouraged to recite Sabads of detachment.

Funeral ceremony as per Sikh Rahit Maryada
This information is based on the ‘Sikh Reht Maryada’ (The Code of Sikh Conduct & Conventions).

Different rituals and superstitions related to death are prevalent in every religion, society, country, and culture. There is no place for superstitions in Sikhi, but many have become prevalent in Sikh society due to cultural influence. According to the ‘Sikh Rahit Maryada,’ the funeral rites of a person belonging to the Sikh religion are as follows:
  1. If the body of a dying or dead person is on a cot, it must not be taken off the cot and put on the floor. Nor must a lit lamp be placed beside the body, or a cow given in donation by the deceased or for the good of the deceased, nor should any other ceremony, contrary to Sikh principles, be performed. Only Gurbani should be recited or ‘Vahiguru, Vahiguru’ repeated by their side.
  2. When one dies, the survivors must not grieve, wail, cry, or indulge in breast-beating. To induce a mood of acceptance of the Divine will, it is desirable to recite Gurbani or repeat ‘Vahiguru.’
  3. However young the deceased may be, the body should be cremated. However, where arrangements for cremation cannot be made, there should be no qualms about the body being immersed in flowing water or disposed of in any other manner.
  4. When determining the timing for cremation, no superstitious factors regarding whether it should occur during the day or night should be considered.
  5. The dead body should be bathed and clothed in clean clothes. While that is done, the Sikh symbols – comb, undershorts, steel bracelet, traditional sword – should not be taken off. Thereafter, putting the body on a bier, ardas is to be offered about the body being taken away for disposal. The bier should then be taken to the cremation ground. While the body is being carried to the cremation ground, hymns that induce feelings of detachment should be recited. On reaching the cremation ground, the pyre should be laid. Then the ardas for consigning the body to the fire should be offered. The dead body should then be placed on the pyre, and the son, or any other relation or friend of the deceased, should light it. The accompanying congregation should sit at a reasonable distance and listen to kirtan or carry-on collective singing or recitation of hymns. When the pyre is fully lit, Sohila should be recited, and the ardas offered (piercing the skull half an hour or so after the pyre has been burning with a rod in the belief that it will secure the release of the soul – kapal kriya
    During the cremation of the dead body, a ritual in which the skull of the deceased is broken with a stick is known as ‘kapal kirya.’ According to Hindu scripture, Garur Puran, there is a custom to break the skull of a householder with a stick and that of an ascetic with a coconut. Through this, the deceased one is believed to attain ‘pitar lok’ (a realm where their ancestors reside). -Gurcharanjit Singh Lamba, Sakhi Sikh Rahit Ji Ki, page 281.
    – is not in line with the Guru’s teachings). The congregation should then leave.
  6. Upon returning home, a reading of the Guru Granth Sahib should be commenced at home or in a nearby Gurduara (popularly Gurdwara), and after reciting the six stanzas of the Anand Sahib, offering an ardas, the distribution of ceremonial food (karah parshad). The reading of the Guru Granth Sahib should be completed on the tenth day. If the reading cannot be completed on the tenth day, some other day may be appointed for the conclusion of the reading with regard to the convenience of the relatives. The reading of the Guru Granth Sahib should be carried out by the members of the household of the deceased and relatives together. If possible, Kirtan may be held every night. No funeral ceremony needs to be performed after the ‘tenth day.’
  7. When the pyre is burnt out, the whole bulk of the ashes, including the remaining bone fragments, should be gathered up and immersed in flowing water or buried at that very place and the ground leveled. Raising a monument to the memory of the deceased at the place where their dead body is cremated is not endorsed.
  8. ‘Adh marg’ (the ceremony of breaking the pot used for bathing the dead body amid doleful cries halfway towards the cremation ground), organized lamentation by women, ‘foohari’ (sitting on a straw mat in mourning for a certain period), ‘diva’ (keeping an oil lamp lit for 360 days after the death in the belief that it will light the path of the deceased), ‘pind’ (donating of lumps of rice flour, oat flour, or solidified milk (khoa) for ten days after death), ‘kirya’ (concluding the funeral proceedings ritualistically, serving meals and making offerings by way of shradh),
    Shradh refers to a ritual in which offerings are made to pay homage to the ancestors, especially deceased parents.
    and ‘budha marna’ (waving of whisk, over the hearse of an old person’s dead body and decorating the hearse with festoons), are not in the approved code. So, too, is the retrieval of the remaining bone fragments from the ashes of the pyre for the purpose of immersing them in the Ganges, at Patalpuri (at Kiratpur), at Kartarpur Sahib, or at any other such place.

Sabads recited during the funeral ceremony.
The following are the Sabads that are usually recited or sung during the funeral ceremony:
  1. bābā bolte te kahā gae dehī ke saṅgi rahte. -Guru Granth Sahib 480
  2. pharīdā darīāvai kann̖ai bagulā baiṭhā kel kare. -Guru Granth Sahib 1383
  3. vekhahu bandā caliā cahu jaṇiā dai kann̖i. -Guru Granth Sahib 1383
  4. re man tero koi nahī khinci lei jini bhāru. -Guru Granth Sahib 337
  5. ghale āvahi nānakā sade uṭhī jāhi.1. -Guru Granth Sahib 1239
  6. pavnai mahi pavanu samāiā. -Guru Granth Sahib 885
  7. jiu jiu terā hukamu tivai tiu hovaṇā. -Guru Granth Sahib 523

Sabad 1
This Sabad is revealed by Bhagat Kabir (birth 1398 CE) and recorded on page 480 of the Guru Granth Sahib. It has five stanzas. The stanza of rahau is separate from these stanzas.

Sabad 2
This Sabad is revealed by Bhagat Farid (1173-1265 CE) and recorded on page 1383 of the Guru Granth Sahib. It is a salok, which contains four lines.

Sabad 3
This Sabad is revealed by Bhagat Farid and recorded on page 1383 of the Guru Granth Sahib. It is a salok that contains six lines.

Sabad 4
This Sabad is revealed by Bhagat Kabir and recorded on page 337 of the Guru Granth Sahib. It has three stanzas. The stanza of rahau is separate from these stanzas.

Sabad 5
This Sabad is revealed by Guru Angad Sahib (1504-1552 CE) and recorded on page 1239 of the Guru Granth Sahib. It is a salok that contains eight lines.

Sabad 6
This Sabad is revealed by Guru Arjan Sahib (1563-1606 CE) and recorded on page 885 of the Guru Granth Sahib. It has four stanzas. The stanza of rahau is separate from these stanzas.

Sabad 7
This Sabad is revealed by Guru Arjan Sahib and recorded on page 523 of the Guru Granth Sahib. This Sabad is the eighteenth pauri of ‘Gujari Ki Var.’ It has eight lines.