Holy Smoke!: Common Sense Prevails in British Hindu’s Plight for Proper Cremation

Davender Ghai, 71, a devout Hindu from Newcastle, northern Britain, just wanted to “clarify the law, not disobey or disrespect it.” Back in 2006, he had requested a permit from the Newcastle City Council for an open-air cremation site in remote Northumberland county. But, they denied the request, citing the Cremation Act 1902’s prohibition of burning human remains anywhere but in a crematorium.

Davender Ghai

Davender Ghai smiles in triumph (borrowed from BBC News)

Concerned for his right to have his body consumed by “sacred flames” in the traditional manner, Ghai then challenged the ruling. He complained that “British-style crematoria amount to a ‘mechanized humiliation of dignity — a waste-disposal process devoid of spiritual significance.'” In other words, he didn’t want his body dumped unceremoniously into an oven. The challenge was dismissed by the High Court but left open for appeal.

Finally, a London Court of Appeal has ruled in Ghai’s favor, allowing him to follow the cremation practices of his religion. While the traditional pyre is usually burned outdoors, the court maintained that the pyre be “enclosed in a structure”. That was fine with Ghai, whose lawyers made clear the pyre could still follow the religious requirement of being “open to the sky”, even if it was surrounded by walls and had a roof overhead with a smoke-hole. (The court even indicated that a roof may be optional.) In fact, while Ghai’s lawyers had cited human rights legislation protecting religious freedoms, the court insisted that the issue was really the definition of a “building”. [Seriously?]

“Mr Ghai’s religious and personal beliefs as to how his remains should be cremated once he dies can be accommodated within current cremation legislation,” the lead judge said.

“All the time I had complete faith that justice would be done,” said Ghai, now in poor health. The ruling “has breathed new life into an old man’s dreams. Now I can die in peace.”

Meanwhile, certain groups have said they still don’t like the idea of such outdoor cremations. Indeed, part of the British government’s argument in court was that “a large proportion of the population (in Britain) would be upset and offended and would find it abhorrent if human remains were burned on open-air pyres.” The Newcastle City Council is waiting for direction from the Ministry of Justice on how to address air-quality and public health standard concerns. [Note to self: When approaching smokey funeral pyre, walk away or stay up-wind.]

Score one for the Hindus (and Sikhs) in Britain who want a traditional send-off, a “natural cremation”, according to their religious customs. Burning in a wood pyre is part of the funereal ritual believed to release the soul, freeing it for its next reincarnation. I don’t have to believe in reincarnation to appreciate this ruling. I don’t want to make too much of this. But, I like it when common sense and respect for religious freedom prevails. Let’s just hope the enviro-extremists don’t screw it up.

However, the “win” for human rights / freedom of religion is not the only important thing to take from this. Remember, Ghai’s initial reason for bringing this to court was “to seek clarification of the law and the council’s refusal under the Act.” Moreover, Ghai argued that the Act need not be read as outlawing open air pyres, as long as they were “properly authorised and private site and without causing public offence or nuisance”; otherwise, it is a violation of the Human Rights Act 1998, specifically where a citizen’s rights to religious freedom and a private and family life are addressed.

So, Ghai obviously thought that he could have his open-air pyre and still abide by the law. As he later observed, “My request was often misinterpreted, leading many to believe I wanted a funeral pyre cremation in an open field, whereas I always accepted that buildings and permanent structures would be appropriate.”

The government countered with concerns about offending public decency and “the wider societal implications of pyres”. There was a tertiary issue about possible danger from burning things like mercury fillings. That was in 2006/2007.

As mentioned earlier, the main issue for the Appeal Court in 2009/2010 was making sure that there were sufficient walls (and perhaps a roof) surrounding such a pyre to make it fit with the 108-year old Cremation Act. Was that really easier than amending the Act, which they have done on many other occasions? As Ghai noted, “The Court of Appeal understood my request was consistent with both the spirit and letter of the law and my only regret is that tax payers’ money would have been saved had that been recognised in 2006.” My guess is that this could have been resolved years ago, if it weren’t for some combination of bureaucratic mismanagement, miscommunication, incompetence, egos, & perhaps (anti-)religious bias.

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