A devout Hindu grandfather has won the right to be cremated on a traditional ‘open air’ funeral pyre when he dies.
Davender Ghai, 71, believes that the tradition of open-air cremation is essential to the liberation of his soul after death.
But his local authority–and the Ministry of Justice–contended that the ancient practice of ‘natural cremation’, widely carried out in other parts of the world breached the 1902 Cremation Act.
Today, however, London’s Court of Appeal said that the spiritual healer and respected charity leader’s heartfelt request could be accommodated under existing law.
The landmark ruling means that thousands of Hindus, Sikhs–and anyone else wanting ‘natural cremation’–can be content that their dying wishes can legally be carried out.
It opens the way for building new crematoria with a hole in the roof to meet the requirements of the faiths. At present no suitable site for Mr Ghai to be cremated exists.
Mr Ghai, a father of three from Gosforth, Newcastle upon Tyne, said today he was ‘overjoyed’ by the decision.
‘I never doubted justice would be done but, in all honesty, I often feared that my health would fail me before the legal journey had ended.
‘This case was truly a matter of life and death for me and today’s verdict has breathed new life into an old man’s dreams.’
Mr Ghai, a British citizen who came to England from Kenya in 1958 to study, added: ‘Both my father and grandfather proudly served in the British Army in Kenya and I myself have devoted the best years of my life in voluntary service to Britain’s poor, desperate and lonely.
‘I never wanted to be divisive or offend anyone, the Britain I have loved for over half a century is a tolerant “live and let live” nation and the verdict is a victory for those values.’
Mr Ghai’s attempt to establish the first approved site in the UK for the 4,000-year-old spiritual ceremony was first blocked four years ago by Newcastle City Council, which said the pyres were unlawful.
The local authority’s decision was upheld at the High Court last year, when the Ministry of Justice argued that ‘a large proportion of the population of the United Kingdom would be upset and offended and would find it abhorrent if human remains were burned on open-air pyres’.
The pensioner, who has a number of health problems, had said the council’s cremation facilities were a ‘waste disposal process devoid of spiritual significance’.
By contrast, he compared the liberation of the soul in consecrated fire to a sacramental rebirth, ‘like the mythical phoenix arising from the flames anew’.
Determined Mr Ghai appealed and yesterday he won his four-year battle.
Delivering the ruling Master of the Rolls, Lord Neuberger said: ‘It seems to us that Mr Ghai’s religious and personaI beliefs as to how his remains should be cremated once he dies can be accommodated within current cremation legislation.’
In the end the ruling came down not to human rights but to the question of what constitutes a building.
The court was told that Mr Ghai wanted a funeral pyre of wood that should be open to the sky, but the site could be surrounded by walls and the pyre covered with a roof which had an opening.
The Ministry of Justice said this was not a building, which was a structure bounded by walls with a roof, and the law was there to protect ‘decorum and decency’.
But three of the country’s top judges disagreed, ruling that the Ministry of Justice definition of a building was too narrow.
All Mr Ghai wanted was a traditional fire and for the sun to be able to fall on his body and this could be carried out in a purpose-built crematorium within the law, they said.
Mr Ghai, the founder of the Anglo-Asian Friendship Society (AAFS), said he had been left ‘virtually penniless’ fighting the case. But now he hopes to submit proposals for a natural cremation site and has already been offered land.
He said his request had often been ‘misinterpreted’, leading many to believe he wanted to be cremated in an open field, but he always accepted buildings were ‘appropriate’
He said his dream now was that such site would be ‘open to everyone’.
His own dearest wish is that his eldest son should light the funeral pyre while the rest of his family watches as his soul is released from his body into the afterlife.
He wants his ashes to be carried to India and immersed in the Ganges.
A spokesman for Newcastle City Council said that the difficulties which may be thrown up by planning and public health legislation, should an application be submitted, had not been considered as part of the judgment.
They said the method of burning associated with funeral pyres was not covered by any regulations which currently only apply to cremators powered by gas or electricity which are designed to maintain environmental standards, in particular air quality.
‘Following the judgment, all local authorities will await further guidance from the Home Office and Defra as regards any proposed regulations or legislation which may control the proposed manner of cremation to ensure environmental standards and public health are protected,’ he said.
So Why Open-Air Cremation?
Many Hindus believe open air cremations are vital to give the dead an unimpeded path to reincarnation. Instructions are found in the Satapatha Brahmana, scriptures dating from 900 to 600BC.
The ritual takes place in three distinct parts. The first is the actual cremation, which includes the actual or symbolic breaking of the skull to aid the release of the soul.
Cremation is followed by a second ceremony, called the Havan, at a temple where a fire is lit, fragrant herbs scattered on the pyre and holy words chanted before the ashes are collected when cool. In India, bodies are traditionally burned on pyres beside the Ganges, the Hindus’ holiest river.
Once the ashes have cooled they are collected and relatives scatter the ashes in the river to unite fire, wind, earth and water.
Where ceremonies cannot be held by the river, the bodies are burnt in the families’ home towns before the ashes are transported to the Ganges.
Open air cremations are also widely practised in the Sikh faith.
On a hillside outside Brighton a marble memorial stands on a spot where 53 Hindu and Sikh soldiers who died fighting in World War I were cremated outdoors.
In 1934 the Home Office authorised the cremation in Woking of a Nepalese princess.
The Court of Appeal ruling is thought likely to make the UK the only country in western Europe to allow natural cremations, which are permitted in 27 countries across the world including 15 where neither Hindus or Buddhists–who also traditionally use funeral pyres–form the majority of the population.
Funeral pyres are permitted for Aboriginal cremations in Australia and also in two American states, Colorado and Vermont.
Four years ago, in a farmer’s field in Northumberland, a 31-year-old Sikh man was cremated after Mr Ghai agreed to help the Indian man’s family.