Page last updated at 13:54 GMT, Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Hindu fights for pyre 'dignity'

The funeral pyre in Northumberland
Some British Hindus send the bodies of their relatives to India

A Hindu man has told the High Court he wants to die "with dignity" and not be "bundled in a box", in a case to retain open-air cremations.

Davender Ghai, 70, a devout Hindu, wants to overturn a Newcastle Council decision preventing funeral pyres being held in line with religious practice.

Mr Ghai insists that the process is essential to free the soul after death.

His human rights application is set to last three days. The council says such cremations are "impractical".

Hindus in India have been carrying out open cremations for more than 4,000 years, but their requirements have been deemed impractical in UK council crematoria.

Davender Ghai says open-air cremation is a vital part of Hindu doctrine

Ramby de Mello, appearing for Mr Ghai, told Justice Cranston: "He wants to make it clear he does not expect such a funeral to be unregulated.

"What he wants in terms of his funeral is nothing short of an open-air pyre where his body can be burnt in a sacrament of fire."

The court heard that Mr Ghai's wish was that his 40-year-old eldest son Sanjay, who lives in Canada, should light the funeral pyre while the rest of his family watches as his soul is released from his body into the afterlife.

In 2006 Newcastle City Council refused Mr Ghai permission to establish a site for cremations in the open.

The council said the burning of human remains anywhere outside a crematorium was prohibited under the 1902 Cremation Act - a ruling the Ministry of Justice agreed was correct.

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

In his latest witness statement, Mr Ghai said: "Being bundled into a box and incinerated in a furnace is not my idea of dignity, much less the performance of an ancient sacrament."

Davender Ghai
I will not deny my claim is provocative, least of all in a nation as notoriously squeamish towards death as our own
Davender Ghai

Following the 2006 decision he organised the cremation of a Hindu man in a meadow in countryside near the city.

Northumbria Police had raised no objections to the service, but following further investigations admitted it may have been illegal. The Crown Prosecution Service decided not to take it further.

Mr Ghai now wants a clear ruling from the High Court that open air funeral pyres are legal in England and Wales.

"As a Hindu, I believe my soul should be liberated in consecrated fire, 'Agni', after death - a sacramental rebirth, like the mythical phoenix arising from the flames anew," he said.

"I will not deny my claim is provocative, least of all in a nation as notoriously squeamish towards death as our own.

"However, I honestly do not believe natural cremation grounds would offend public decency - as long as they were discreet, designated sites far from urban and residential areas."

Some British Hindus send the bodies of their relatives to India to ensure they are burnt in line with traditional practice.

Others fly the ashes there so they can be placed in the sacred River Ganges.

A number of British rivers - including the Soar, the Thames and the Wye - have been "anointed with water from the Ganges", to make them credible substitutes for the holy river.

Hindus constitute the third biggest religious group in the UK, and there is potentially significant demand for open-air cremations, said BBC religious affairs correspondent Robert Pigott.

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