Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, last rites across communities and faiths around the world have been accelerated and adapted to minimise the number of people in close contact with a dead body. These changes affect the way people cope with the death of a loved one. Familiarity with cultural and religious practices can significantly aid the personnel involved in dead body management. This short note considers the funeral practices in Sikhism and provides some guidelines for the safety of families, healthcare and frontline workers who may be involved in the dignified management of the dead.
One of the major religions of the Indian subcontinent and the fifth largest in the world, Sikhism started in the 15th century in Northern India. Sikhs believe in one God with equality for all humankind, and the adherents of Sikhism strive for the benefit of all.
In Sikhism, it is believed that the ‘soul’ never dies; it travels to achieve its ultimate purpose. That is, after a person’s death the soul starts its journey towards God which it can complete only if the person had committed good deeds during his/her lifetime. Uniting with God (Waheguru) is the aim and it can be achieved only with the grace of Waheguru (God).
The Sikh funeral – Antam Sanskaar (final rite of passage) – focuses not on loss and grief, but on celebrating the soul’s opportunity to re-join Waheguru. The dead are cremated and the arrangement for funerals can widely vary. Sometimes the body is washed, Mool Mantra is recited, and the deceased is clothed in clean clothes. In the case of a baptized Sikh, the outfit is complete with the five Ks. Sikh cremations can take place during the day or at night. Often, the bereaved family, close relatives and friends attend the cremation. In some cases, a service may be held before the cremation and then another at the gurdwara (the Sikh place of worship). In other cases, the family may organise only a cremation at which a few prayers are recited. Most Sikh funerals include the recital of Ardas, a community prayer, as well as two daily prayers, Japji and Kirtan Sohila. Services can take place at the home of the bereaved family, the gurdwara, outdoor, or at the crematorium.
The funeral service is designed to show that the mourners are resigned to God’s will rather than focusing on their pain and grief. Sikhism does, however, acknowledge that sadness is a part of a loved one dying and supports private grieving and comforting others.
Cremation is preferred for Sikh funerals in India. Outside India, it is done with outdoor funeral pyres. In Sikhism, burial or any other means to dispose of the body are acceptable if the circumstances do not allow for cremation. After the cremation, the ashes are usually scattered in the river or sea. In rare cases, ashes may be buried.
Another service, called the ‘Sahaj Paath Bhog’, is usually held at the Gurdwara. The family of the deceased may undertake continuous reading of the Sikh religious book, Sri Guru Granth Sahib (Sahaj Paath). The reading – undertaken at home or in the Gurdwara – usually takes place on the day of the cremation and its conclusion marks the end of the mourning period.
Generally, relatives and friends of the family gather for the bhog ceremony on the completion of the reading of the Guru Granth Sahib – worshiped as the Living God. Ragis or religious musicians sing shabad hymns, saloks of the ninth Sikh Guru Tegh Bahadur, and Ramkali Saad, the Call of God, is recited. After the final prayer, a selected reading of Hukam (command or order) is undertaken, and Karah Parshad (Holy offerings – usually a sweet dish) is distributed to the congregation. Food (langar) from the Guru’s kitchen or community kitchen may also be served.
Impact of COVID 19
The last rites are flexible and already adapted to minimise contact with the dead body. The Government of India has published the following guidelines related to the final rites of those who are confirmed or believed to have died due to COVID-19:
- Crematorium staff should be sensitised to the possible risk of infection and provided with PPE.
- Staff must practice standard precautions of hand hygiene, use of masks and gloves.
- Viewing of the dead body by unzipping the face-end of the body bag (by staff using standard precautions) may be allowed so that relatives can see the deceased for one last time.
- Rituals such as reading from religious scriptures, sprinkling holy water and any other last rites that do not require touching the body may be allowed.
- Bathing, kissing, hugging, etc., of the dead body should not be allowed.
- The funeral staff and family members of the deceased should wash their hands thoroughly after performing the last rites.
- The ashes of the deceased do not pose any risk and may be collected to perform the last rites.
- Large gatherings at the crematoriums or at post-cremation ceremonies should be avoided as a social distancing measure as it is possible that close family contacts may be infected with the virus.
Autopsy has also been debated widely in relation to COVID-19 in India. The central government has advised against conducting autopsies of confirmed COVID-19 patients. For suspected cases, the decision-making power remains with states and hospitals depending on the availability of testing kits.
The ICRC guidance on management of the dead due to COVID-19 also aims to protect the lives of healthcare workers, body handlers and the rest of the community. With proper preparation and planning, the safety of healthcare workers on the frontline of the response can be ensured, as well as the dignity of those who are confirmed/believed to have died due to COVID-19.
- Apart from physical distancing and avoiding contact, the ICRC advocates caution with respect to the handling of COVID-19 dead bodies, since it remains unclear for how long the risk of infection from the dead body or bodily fluids persists.
- If the family members wish to see the body, they should use PPE to do so before the body is bagged.
- PPE must be used by those handling the dead. The body of a deceased person must be completely wrapped in a leakage proof body bag (or double-bagged) before being moved to the mortuary.
- The body bag(s) should not be opened again prior to cremation.
- Bodies should not be embalmed or injected with preservatives. The process of embalming can result in the unnecessary manipulation of the body that may expel fluid from the body’s cavity and/or result in aerosolisation leading to an increased risk for those performing such procedure.
- Non-essential complete autopsies need not be performed.
- Every effort should be made to ensure reliable documentation, identification and traceability of the dead so as to avoid misidentification and trauma for loved ones.
- While dead body management and funeral rites should be adapted to maintain social and physical distancing, hasty and careless disposal of the bodies must be avoided.
- Irrespective of whether the body is infectious or not, there is a chance that family members of the deceased are infected. Gatherings at home, hospitals, mortuary and funerals are highly inadvisable regardless of how the dead body is handled and have sometimes been banned.
- Those who attend the funeral must safely dispose of the PPE and properly practice hand hygiene by washing themselves with soap, water or alcohol-based sanitiser.
 The cycle of transmigration (karma) to unite with Waheguru
 Celebration of the completion of life
 Kesh (uncut hair), Kara (a steel bracelet), Kanga (a wooden comb), Kacchha – also spelt, Kachh, Kachera (cotton underwear), Kirpan (steel sword)
 COVID-19: Guidelines on dead body management, Government of India Ministry of Health & Family Welfare Directorate General of Health Services (EMR Division) dated 15.03.2020