Hindu wants open-air funeral pyres in the UK
Outdoor cremations are banned in Britain, where the law dictates that cremations are restricted to designated crematoriums.
But Davender Ghai, 70, argues it is against his faith and a breach of his human rights to prevent a ritual that has taken place in India over thousands of years.
His lawyers are expected to point out in the test case that instances have gone unpunished in the UK the past, including the 1934 open air cremation of the Nepalese ambassador’s wife in Surrey, southern England.
“I believe a person should live and die according to his own religion,” Ghai, who was the founder of the Anglo Asian Friendship Society, was quoted on the BBC website as saying.
The only legal alternative is for the bodies of relatives to be sent to India for burning, often on the banks of a river regarded as holy.
Ghai brought the case after his request was turned down by Newcastle City Council in northeast England, but as the immigrants of the 1960s and 1970s reach old age, the issue is likely to become more contentious, his lawyer was quoted as saying.
The case will come down to whether the practice is seen as too “un-British”, Ghai was reported on the BBC as saying.
The Hindu Council UK said open-air funeral pyres are sanctioned by Hindu scriptures.
“Therefore, the individual choice of those Hindus who follow the directives of Hindu scriptures and wish to have open-air funerals should be honoured,” it said in a statement.
It put forward the suggestion that a small fire ceremony in an open coffin should be allowed behind the crematorium chapel.
But Jay Lakhani of the Hindu Academy said that though there was sympathy for Ghai’s human rights argument, there were doubts about his belief that unless his body undergoes an open-air cremation his soul will not be liberated.
“This claim flies in the face of common sense,” he wrote in the Guardian newspaper. “If the soul is still in the body, the body cannot be cremated: it could be classed as murder.”
He quoted Krishna in Bhagavad Gita 2.22 (the scripture of authority for Hindus): “Just as one casts off old garments for new, at death, the soul casts off one body and takes on another.”
Krishna does not teach that this can only happen if the body is cremated, or that this cremation has to be in the open air, Lakhani wrote.
He also describes open-air funerals as “pretty morbid”, requiring relatives of the deceased to stand around for hours, and for a male relative at the end of the burning process to crack the skull of the deceased with a club.
He accused Ghai of harming the integrity of Hinduism.
“First it fails to take into account that Hinduism is a forward-looking, evolving religion” and “second, the idea that the soul requires an open-air cremation in order to be released, demolishes the potency of the soul and thereby undermines the very foundation of Hinduism.”
The Ministry of Justice said it had no plans to change the law.
“There are inevitably competing views on the appropriate arrangements for disposing of bodies stemming from different views about religion, morals and decency,” it said in a statement.
“The current law requires that cremations must take place in a crematorium (ie a building) 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.”