A coffin burns on a funeral pyre, as relatives wail their grief. It looks like a scene from the banks of the Ganges but this was a field in Northumberland yesterday afternoon.
The traditional Hindu ceremony took place after being secretly organised by a race relations group.
Last night police started an investigation into the funeral, which apparently contravened laws restricting the burning of bodies outdoors.
The Anglo Asian Friendship Society, which is based in Newcastle, hired the field from a landowner on behalf of the family of Rajpal Mehat, an illegal immigrant who drowned in a
canal in Southall, West London, in December. Hindu tradition dictates that bodies must be burnt in the open air.
The society said many families fly the remains of their loved ones back to India rather than risk the ‘catastrophic consequences for the departed soul’ of failure to abide by the custom.
But it took so long for Mr Mehat’s remains to be found and then identified that his body was declared physically unfit for air transport.
He had arrived in Britain illegally and worked his way across the country, constantly moving on to avoid being caught.
No inquest has been held and the circumstances surrounding his death in shallow water remain unclear.
Mr Mehat, 31, had contacted the 2,000-member society in May last year along with a friend.
Police found the charity’s number on his mobile phone. The group was able to contact his family in the Punjab, who flew over for yesterday’s ceremony.
His sister Sonia said: “He moved from menial job to job, city to city, living in constant fear of being caught.”
She said an “agent” who arranged his entry into Britain was paid £8,500 and “took most of Rajpal’s earnings to pay it off”. He died on December 16, two
days before his 32nd birthday. “By lighting Rajpal’s body on the funeral pyre, his soul will be released to find peace from the torment he suffered in the final frantic moments of his life,” she said.
The coffin was covered with a white cloth, and carried to the pyre by six men.
The dead man’s mother became distraught as the final pieces of the pyre were built, crying that she had lost her only son.
Davender Ghai, a faith healer and spiritualist who is the society’s founder and president, performed the ceremony at the field near Stamfordham.
He and family members walked around the pyre three times, holding a pot containing water from the Ganges, which they then smashed to symbolise the soul’s release.
It was at that point that Mr Ghai lit the pyre, and the mourners watched as the flames took hold.
The ashes will be gathered and taken to the Ganges.
Mr Ghai said: “Rajpal’s mother personally asked me to do this and I take sole responsibility for the planning,
execution and consequences of this pyre. We didn’t want to cause offence and so found a discreet location.
“We didn’t tell the landlord what we were going to do, we just told him we wanted to use the site for a good cause. We didn’t ask his name, and he didn’t ask ours.”
Northumbria Police had allowed the funeral to go ahead after being shown Mr Mehat’s death certificate.
But last night a spokesman conceded that “offences may have been committed”.
In a statement, the force said it initially believed the funeral organisers had complied with all legal requirements.
Superintendent Graham Smith said: “In respecting the values and beliefs of all faiths we did not wish to cause any additional upset to a grieving family.
“This meant all our inquiries were carried out in an extremely sensitive manner before the service got under way.
“Following further investigation, we believe offences may have been committed under the Cremation Act 1902 in relation to where human remains can legally be cremated.
“We are now discussing the matter further with the community, our partners and the local authorities.”
Andrew Bogan, the Anglo Asian Friendship Society’s legal adviser, accepted that the funeral pyre may not have been strictly legal under the terms of the 1902 Cremation Act, which was updated in 1930.
It bans the burning of bodies, except in officially designated crematoriums.
A spokesman for the Department of Constitutional Affairs said: “The plain fact is that any funeral pyre is illegal and to burn human remains in the open air is against the law.”