Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Pyre: Will Open Air 'Natural' Cremations be Allowed in the UK?

I have been told half seriously by many people that they would like a 'Viking Funeral' where a person's body would drift off into a lake and be consumed by flames. This is a romantic idea and would be a very moving and symbolic ritual, but I have to tell these people "good luck getting away with that!" But what if being consumed on a funeral pyre in the water, or in the open air is a sacrament of your faith, and a strong tradition for you? You would want more than a 'Good Luck' chance of getting away with it, you'd want the assurance that it could legally be done.
In the UK, there is a movement to legalize open air or 'natural' cremation. The government must find a way to balance the religious rights of Hindus with the possible environmental consequences of allowing for such a practice.

The open-air burning of human corpses may be permitted across Britain after a religious charity won a significant victory in its campaign to legalise traditional Hindu funerals.
An attempt to establish the first approved site for the 4,000-year-old spiritual ceremony in northeast England was blocked last year after a local authority ruled that it would breach cremation laws.
The decision was challenged by Davender Kumar Ghai, a 68-year-old devout Hindu who is in poor health and is demanding the right, when he dies, to be cremated on an open-air pyre.
A High Court judge has now approved his bid to seek a judicial review of Newcastle City Council’s refusal to permit a funeral rite that Hindus regard as essential for the successful liberation of the soul.
Mr Justice Collins ruled that it was in the public interest to allow the application because the issue was “of some considerable importance to the Hindu community”. He also noted that rulings in 1884 and 1907 “may mean that the burning of dead bodies in the open air is not necessarily unlawful”.
Britain has 559,000 Hindus and many are expected to opt for an open-air cremation if such ceremonies are approved.
Mr Ghai, the founder and president of the Anglo-Asian Friendship Society, created headlines last July when he arranged the first human funeral pyre in Britain since the Home Office authorised the outdoor cremation of Sumshere Jung, a Nepalese princess and the wife of the Napalese ambassador, in Woking in 1934.
“Hindus are Britain’s third largest faith group. We have proved to be a model migrant community and we feel hurt that other groups are allowed to undertake their funeral rites while we are left out. It is time for that to change,” he said.
-from the Times, for the full article visit

Blazing row -from The Good Funeral Guide Blog
"The Hindus of Britain have never asked for anything," says Mr Gai of the Anglo-Asian Friendship Society "but we're not asking for much, just to cremate our loved ones in the way our religion says it must be done."
The issue of open-air cremation is hotting up as Newcastle-based Mr Gai prepares to go the High Court next month to demand the right to have his body disposed of in accordance with his religious beliefs.
Mr Gai’s challenge will, doubtless, come down to an evaluation of both the aesthetic and environmental effects of outdoor cremation. It is not long since measures to control foot and mouth disease in the UK blackened the sun and cloaked the countryside with the smoke and stench of burning cattle carcases, so no problem there. But those innocent beasts did not have teeth filled with mercury amalgam, and vaporised mercury is particularly nasty emission.
Let us hope that Mr Gai will be successful and that the judgement will permit open-air cremation for anyone who opts for it. Does that mean that the derelict shipyards of the Tyne will be replaced by burning ghats?
No -- regrettably or otherwise. Open-air cremation is perceived to be a religious requirement only by some Hindus. And for a very few non-Hindus it is an elemental desire which cannot be reduced to a mere reason. It’s a tiny niche market, but one which nevertheless deserves to go the way of its choosing.
Let’s not forget that our ‘bonfire’ derives from the Middle English ‘bone fire’. for the full article, visit

Even as open air cremations are being considered in the UK, Concerns are being raised about their environmental consequences in India. Following is an excerpt from CBS
Varanasi, the holy city on the Ganges 395 miles southeast of New Delhi, attracts hundreds of thousands of people who cremate their dead and pour the ashes into the river to ensure "moksha," the final liberation of the soul from the endless cycle of reincarnation. The ashes of millions of dead have helped turn the water into a stinking, polluted swirl. Worse, since wood is scarce and expensive, bodies sometimes are thrown into the river half-burned. "Apart from the ashes, this is an even bigger environmental hazard for the Ganges River," said Sunita Narain, an activist with the Center for Science and Environment in New Delhi. Environmentalists prefer electric furnaces because they don't need wood and they reduce the body to a small urnful of powdery ash that does less harm to the rivers. Swami Agnivesh, a Hindu theologian and social activist, says the religion is flexible enough to accept technology. "Many Hindus would welcome the change, especially if they were made aware of the environmental consequences of wood cremation," for the full text, visit

A Viking Funeral as described in the Sagas
I'm inclined to agree with Mr. Cowling (The Good Funeral Guide), that this type of cremation, if allowed, would be only a niche market, and would not therefore, present much of an environmental issue. After all, how may cords of fire wood are consumed in fireplaces every year? I'm sure that if this is legalized in the UK (or the US for that matter), that regulations would not allow for partially consumed bodies to be left in public water ways. As for fully consumed cremated remains, their presence in water ways is not an issue because they are completely sterile. Unless tons of cremated remains are left in one place, as they are in the Ganges, the effect would be the same as sprinkling sand into the water.

OK, I just couldn't resist showing another Grecian Urn, this one depicting a funeral pyre.

March 2009 update:

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