Friday, March 20, 2009

The Pyre: Fight for open air cremation continues in the UK

Funeral Pyres on the Ganges, Varanasi   ©2007 Lou Montrose

Here is an update to my previous post 'The Pyre'.  Members of England's Hindu minority continue to seek permission to hold open air cremations according to the dictates of their religion.  Here is an excerpt from the Times article by Andrew Norfolk:

Government lawyers will tell a High Court judge next week that allowing an elderly man’s last wish would be abhorrent to the majority of the British population. The man likely to cause such offence is a Hindu aged 70 who wants to follow the dictates of his religion by having a natural cremation on a funeral pyre.  There may be some justification for the Government’s squeamish belief that its citizens would find the traditional funeral rites of a faith with 900 million worldwide adherents “extremely disturbing”.

The National Council for Hindu Priests, in common with most British Hindu organisations, supports the man’s claim, viewing it as “the single most significant campaign to promote Hindu religious freedom in British history”.

Davender Kumar Ghai, the devout Hindu at the centre of the case, fits no one’s idea of a radical minority-rights activist.  He has lived in Britain since 1958, is the founding president of the Anglo-Asian Friendship Society and the holder of a Unesco Peace Gold Medal and an Amnesty International lifetime achievement award.

The Burning of the House of Lords and the House of Commons (1835)  by J.M.W. Turner

Mr Ghai, from Newcastle-upon- Tyne, is in poor health and his final wish is to die in the knowledge that his son will be allowed to set ablaze an open-air pyre that will consume his body but, he believes, liberate his soul.  “I have lived my entire life by the Hindu scriptures. I now yearn to die by them and I do not believe that natural cremation grounds — as long as they were discreet, designated sites far from urban and residential areas — would offend public decency.  “My loyalty is to Britain’s values of fairness, tolerance and freedom. If I cannot die as a true Hindu, it will mean those values have died too.”  He is challenging Newcastle City Council’s refusal to allow a designated site for open-air cremations. If the judicial review is successful, such sites could spring up around the country.


Three years ago, in a secluded field in Northumberland, The Times witnessed the lighting of Britain’s first open-air funeral pyre since the Home Office authorised one for a Nepalese princess at Woking in 1934.  The mother and sister of an Indian man who died aged 31 were among a small group of mourners, led by Mr Ghai, who watched as his body, covered in a white cloth, was placed on the wooden pyre.  A Brahmin priest led chanting as flowers were thrown into the consecrated fire. Incense burnt, water from the Ganges was sprinkled and an earthenware pot smashed to symbolise the soul’s release and rebirth.  The ceremony was held in secret because Newcastle City Council had ruled that it was outlawed by the 1902 Cremation Act. 

 for the full article, visit


Charles Cowling said...

This is indeed a burning issue over here, Patrick. And, d'you know, I wonder where public opinion really stands. There was no outcry three years ago. Moreover, there is unquestionably a widespread and deep Jungian yearning for open air cremation among folk of all colours and creeds. I don't know if it is ever debated in the US, but I could see it catching on here if it were legalised. I deplore members of a religion being granted special privileges unavailable to others; if it's legal for one it's got to be legal for all. But I fear our government would step in to outlaw such an 'untidy' practice. A shame, perhaps. Burning a body in the open air is visible and elemental, which is exactly what burial in the ground is, unlike cremation, which is sterile and industrial.

We shall see. It's an interesting one!

Anonymous said...

What do we know of the environmental ramifications of open air cremation?

Patrick McNally said...

Whether this is an environmental concern, depends upon how many people choose it for disposition. The amount of wood necessary to consume a human body would be as high as an RV trailer.

I would also note that what is left after this type of cremation is very different from the sanitized 'ashes' from a crematory. Some flesh may not be completely consumed, and there are very recognizable skeletal remnants. This is something other cultures accept as a matter of course, but that may make westerners VERY squeamish.
That said, I think that those who make an informed decision to choose this method for whatever reason, should be allowed to do so.

Charles Cowling said...

"Whether this is an environmental concern, depends upon how many people choose it for disposition."

I think this is the point. It is unlikely that open-air cremation would be the disposition option of more than a very few.

As a point of interest, I visited Carl Marlow, the UK funeral director who undertook the most recent (2006) open-air cremation over here, on the day when he had retrieved what he could from the burnt-out pyre. There were some small bones, no more than a few inches long, and not unsightly, I think, or likely to shock. But he had used a good deal of coal under the wood.

Another funeral director, Rupert Callender, was subsequently asked to perform an open-air cremation but, after taking legal advice, decided not to risk it. He compromised. He had the body cremated conventionally, then put the ashes in a coffin along with other things beloved of the dead man. He built a pyre and put the coffin atop it. The dead man's eldest son lit the pyre by firing a burning arrow at it.

Here is an option available to everybody regardless of law!

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