Sikhs say ‘No’ to Open Air Funeral Pyres

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Speech By
Harmander Singh UK

Thanks for inviting me; it is an honour for a number of reasons. One is that in my faith we have learnt very quickly that the truth is that we will all die eventually. The reason for me coming here was, as the Chair said, about 18 months ago there was a news item about one gentleman suggesting that open air funeral pyres are the way to the future. We didn’t mind him saying that; what we were upset about was that he suggested that it also, not only reflected his interpretation of his religious beliefs, but it also included the Sikhs. We are not happy with that bit!

We have no problem with any faith deciding what it wants to do, how it wants to do it, according to its own scriptures. What we are a little parochial about is that we are somewhat different. We feel that we are able to upset everybody and we want to retain that! The secularists don’t like us and the humanists don’t like us because we sometimes go further than they do, and they can’t attack us on that one.

If I can briefly raise awareness of where the Sikhs are coming from – I wouldn’t say India (I am from Singapore!). What we would normally say is that in Sikhism we believe that all religions are like ‘boats on a river of life’. They all get you across to wherever that is – salvation perhaps – and they take weird and wonderful routes it would seem from one boat when you are looking at the others, but let’s for one moment say that they are all going in, what they believe, is the right direction and quite often it is. The bridges between faiths and people of faith are wide and getting wider and the differences are getting smaller as we increase our understanding of each other.

People on the Sikh boat will throw a lifeline to anybody who has fallen in the ‘river of life’, but the person is not obliged to take it. However, should he/she get onto the Sikh boat, it is not like a supermarket that you will have this brand or that brand of Sikhism; it’s all or nothing. If the captain is wanting to say something and you disagree with it, he would be quite happy to chuck you over board again! They want to be judged by the highest standard that they believe they have set themselves.

Coming back to the points about shared paths, boats may appear to share a journey for a short while, but when they do part company, the individual has to choose which boat he/she wants to stay on, unless they are very good at doing the splits!

Coming to that conclusion, I want to briefly define the difference between spirituality, tradition and culture, because I believe that is what the problem is.

Spirituality is where something is written in the books that guide us and we are all people of the book, they are just different books. And so people believe that this is God’s will and God’s word, and we will do that. Tradition is when people continue doing things, but they have forgotten why they are doing it, and/or they just feel that it is no longer appropriate, but they will do it all the same.

Culture is a mixture of living alongside people of other faiths where one bond that joins everyone is the sharing of grief or joy. At the edges of your religious beliefs, you are able to set aside what your faith truly dictates in order to be nice to human be ings, because in Sikhism there is only one race and that’s the human race.

When this gentleman, Davender Ghai, from the, interestingly named, Anglo-Asian Friendship Society suggested that open air funeral pyres are necessary for Sikhs and Hindus (we have no problem if that’s what he wants to say about the Hindus) we were deeply upset that he should include the Sikhs. Because, as you all know, and the previous speaker will testify, you don’t really want to upset the Geordies at the best of times! And to say ‘Yeh, we are going to start burning people in your fields’ wasn’t going to be helpful to community cohesion or the environment for that matter.

The BBC reported this and they were able to quickly offer us numerous apologies – no compensation, but just apologies – because the body of the gentleman who had passed away was disposed of in a way which was, maybe true to the Hindu faith, although we understand that a number of Hindu groups have said no it isn’t, he speaks for himself, what is interesting if not intriguing is that he is now able to get Legal Aid to have a Judicial Review about the whole process of whether open air funeral pyres are going to be permitted or not in this country. And we wait to see who he brings over as a Sikh representative.

I would like to go back to the Sikh Rehat Maryada, which is the Code of Conduct. Like every faith, we have a Code of Conduct, like the Ten Commandments, etc. Lots of Sikhs, who could do joined up hand-writing, apparently spent 18 years, and came up with the Sikh Code of Conduct and in that Article 19 and it says

‘The body shall be cremated, however, where arrangements for cremation cannot be made, there should be no qualm about the body being immersed in flowing water or disposed of in any other manner’. ‘When the pyre is burnt out, the whole bulk of the ashes, including the burnt bones, should be gathered up and immersed in flowing water or buried at that very place and the ground levelled. Raising a monument to the memory of the deceased at the place where his dead body is cremated is taboo’.

So Sikhs do not necessarily want any memorial, plaques, etc. It makes the funeral a bit cheaper! Nevertheless, what we are saying is the body, once the person is clinically dead, is of no religious significant value. So Mr Ghai’s assertion that if you cremate in the normal cremator, there is a difficulty for the soul to get to heaven, well, he obviously hasn’t seen Ghost Busters!

We feel that the body is just a vehicle for the soul doing it’s lifetime that God has allowed us to be here. And as soon as you are dead, the body, with the greatest of respect to the dead, is dead. This is a very practical, emotionally detached, clinically cold view. However, that is the Sikh view and I make no apologies about it.

Before coming here I asked people who could do more joined up handwriting to answer a number of questions which I believe the whole industry may wish to be aware of. But before that I also want to say that I did the assessment of a small working group for the DCLG (Department for Communities and Local Government) and the Home Office on the flu pandemic and I have to say that the minority faiths are not well prepared for dealing with mass fatalities, etc. The storage of bodies in places of worship may well have been part and parcel of other faiths, but the Sikh faith will not want that. It is something which, as far as they are concerned, is decaying and they do not necessarily want it to be close to the place of worship. So we are going to have to correct that line in the emergency plan.

When my father passed away – my father was very learned – not educated, but learned – I was able to fulfil the moral obligations of what society expected of me. If I was to follow the very essence of what the Asian secular society would want, I would have had to buy the urn that his ashes were in, a separate plane ticket, put him on a seat next to me, take him to India and then do whatever I was told. I didn’t – I put him in the back of my rucksack as hand-luggage. I had no qualms about that because that’s what he said he wanted – he was of no religious significant value. Yes, there would have been emotional attachment, but even Sikhism would say you should not have emotional attachments to your fellow, because they are not going to go with you when you die. Just be good to them while your are alive.

I have explained most of the things and I have talked about how the Sikh society would want everyone to understand the difference between them and others who claim to be them. But that doesn’t mean that you should not have a dignified approach to the ashes as has been alluded to earlier.

Yes, they are part and parcel of what once was a vehicle for somebody who we loved – your mother and father, or perhaps even your children. Recognising that the very young need higher temperatures to dispose of the remains, Sikhism will say that if you are in the desert or if there is not enough firewood, it is OK to bury. So, there is no hard and fast rule that says we will always cremate. It is just our preferred option. It also stops people looting graveyards for the odd ring and teeth fillings, etc.

The end of the funeral – what is it? For Sikhs (I am not a practicing Sikh by the way. I am only wearing this because I am going bald! Trust me! I don’t need any special lights and other things to hide my good looks, charm, charisma, because my modesty takes care of that!) at the end of the funeral, all we want is for everyone to go back to Gurdwara (we don’t want to call it a temple – it’s got a name and we would like you to use it; it’s a place of God) and say prayers, and that’s where informal, social, passing of responsibility happens to the next-of-kin or the eldest. I was given that when my father passed away because I am the eldest of two brothers.

Men and women are totally equal in Sikhism. Women are expected to lead armies or prayers just as much as men are. Sadly, it doesn’t happen as much as it ought to because of the pressures of secular society, and I am not talking about that horrible French version of it.

I don’t know what else I can actually add to the fact except to say thank you Mr Chairman.

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3 Comments

Filed under Multicultural, Sikhi

3 responses to “Sikhs say ‘No’ to Open Air Funeral Pyres

  1. Dr. Doris Jakobsh

    Hello Kamalla.

    can you tell me where this was originally posted? I assume it was not written for ‘Soulbrides Kitchen’ since it was addressed to Mr. Chairman?

    I think it would be really useful to have the original URL’s posted as well – if for no other reason than copyright issues and laws. (Credit where credit is due and all that…)

    Doris Jakobsh

  2. kamallarosekaur

    Sure Doris,

    I will put Harmander Singh right on this. He gave this speech and posted it in UK egroups. He represents SIE – Sikhs In England. He is also Fauja Singh’s track trainer.

    Here is the SIE link: http://www.sikhs.org.uk/default.aspx

  3. Harmander Singh

    I gave the speech at the International Cremations and Burialn Society Conference on 14 November 2007 in Newcastle in England (UK).

    I posted it on GLZ and Sikh Discussion Groups to provide transparency in representing the Sikh community’s position on the matter.

    Harmander Singh

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