Page last updated at 04:12 GMT, Monday, 23 March 2009

Can Britain accept funeral pyres?

By Alex Kleiderman
BBC News

Davender Ghai
Mr Ghai was denied a licence for a pyre site in 2006

The High Court is being asked to rule on the legality of open air funeral pyres.

If Davender Ghai gets his way in the case due to be heard on Tuesday, traditional Hindu cremations could become commonplace across England and Wales.

In 2006, Newcastle City Council blocked Mr Ghai's attempt to establish the UK's first approved site for open-air funeral pyres.

It maintained the burning of human remains anywhere outside a crematorium was prohibited under the 1902 Cremation Act - a ruling the Ministry of Justice agrees was correct.

Now Mr Ghai, a Hindu campaigner and founder of the Anglo Asian Friendship Society charity, is seeking a judicial review of the decision.

"I believe a person should live and die according to his own religion," said the Uganda-born 70-year-old, who has been living in the UK since the 1970s.

"Local authorities routinely provide separate Muslim and Jewish burial grounds and out-of-hours registration and immediate or weekend burials.

"Hindus should cremate before the following sunset too and yet we, along with the general public, wait for up to a week."

'Tokenistic symbolism'

Under the Cremation Act, the burning of bodies in England and Wales is restricted to designated crematoriums. Similar acts are in force in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

This has resulted in some UK Hindus sending the bodies of deceased relatives to India for a ceremony which dates back some 4,000 years.

In South Asia, most cremations for Hindus and Sikhs are held outdoors, often on the banks of a river regarded as holy. Hindus in particular see open-air cremations as the best way to liberate the soul from the body.

At the High Court, lawyers for Mr Ghai intend to argue that open-air cremations are not "necessarily unlawful".

The funeral pyre of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in Allahabad, India , February 2008
The rituals at a Hindu cremation date back some 4,000 years

They will cite past cases that were not subject to prosecution, including the 1934 open air cremation of the Nepalese ambassador's wife in Surrey.

According to Andrew Singh Bogan, the AAFS's legal adviser, parts of the 1998 Human Rights Act covering freedom to practise religious beliefs could also be relied on.

At a Hindu cremation, the corpse is bathed, usually dressed in traditional white clothes and decorated with sandalwood and flowers.

"There can be some tokenistic symbolism at a crematorium but really it's just disposal of a body," Mr Bogan said.

So what are the objections to open-air cremations?

According to the AAFS, past opposition on health and environmental grounds no longer applies.

Mr Bogan said government tests after the 2001 foot-and-mouth outbreak and an AAFS-commissioned report found no harm to health or the environment from pyres.

The AAFS is proposing open-air cremations take place in designated sites in rural or semi-rural locations away from public areas.

Mr Bogan said Hindu cremations were only now becoming an issue as the immigrants of the 1960s and 1970s reached old age.

But he expects lawyers for Newcastle City Council and the government to portray the practices as "abhorrent".

"In the end this case could come down to the nebulous issue of whether this is seen as 'British' or not," he said.

'Complex issues'

In 2006, Mr Ghai and the AAFS escaped prosecution after cremating the body of a 31-year-old Sikh man at a secret location in Stamfordham, Northumberland.

There are inevitably competing views on the appropriate arrangements for disposing of bodies stemming from different views about religion, morals and decency
Ministry of Justice

Northumbria Police raised no objections to the service at the time, but subsequently said it may have been illegal. The Crown Prosecution Service decided proceedings against Mr Ghai would not be in the public interest.

When Mr Ghai first lodged his application for a judicial review, opinion among the more than 500,000 Hindus in the UK was divided.

Since then, the influential UK Hindu Council organisation, as well as some Sikh temples, have backed him.

The Hindu Council recently stated it recognised that the "individual choice of those Hindus who follow the directives of Hindu scriptures and wish to have open air funerals, should be honoured".

As a "priority" it is also pressing for existing rules to be changed so that the "performance of a small fire ceremony in an open coffin" could take place at crematoriums.

The funeral pyre in Northumberland
A cremation in Northumberland did not lead to prosecution

However, some Hindus see the AAFS's approach as a backwards step.

Jay Lakhani, from Hindu Academy educational body said: "Hindu scriptures should be interpreted judiciously and teaching does allow interpretation in a modern way."

He said he could not understand why UK Hindus would want to dispose of bodies in an "antiquated" manner although he would not object to outdoor cremations taking place if legally permitted.

Newcastle City Council is not commenting ahead of Tuesday's case.

The government said it had no plans to change the law on cremations.

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: "There are inevitably competing views on the appropriate arrangements for disposing of bodies stemming from different views about religion, morals and decency.

"The current law requires that cremations must take place in a crematorium and open air funeral pyres are not allowed. The government considers that this requirement is justified, taking into account the complex social and political issues raised."

At his Gosforth council house, Mr Ghai has been preparing for the High Court hearing.

He has described the case as "provocative, least of all in a nation as notoriously squeamish towards death as our own".

"I fully respect that many Hindu-origin people will prefer the speed and convenience of crematoria but for practicing Hindus like me, receiving last rites is quite literally a matter of life and death," he said.

"Far beyond my own death, I hope my struggle will provide a legacy for those who would not be in a position to undertake such an enormous challenge."

On 8 May, the High Court ruled prohibition was "justified" and rejected Mr Ghai's case.

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