The battle to introduce open-air funeral pyres in the UK is heating up again after a council was challenged to provide a facility to meet the religious beliefs of local people. In 2010, the Court of Appeal ruled that open cremations were legal in England and Wales as long as they met a strict set of criteria. Now a council in the north east of England is being challenged to provide a facility, or at least grant planning permission to allow one to be built.
In the latest round of a long-running battle with his local authority, Davender Ghai, a devout Hindu, said he would be stepping up his campaign, which first began in 2006. The 80-year-old believes there should be a dedicated site for open-air cremations for the Hindu community and anyone of any faith or background who would wish to use it.
He first hit the headlines when he carried out an open air funeral for a friend at the behest of the dead man’s family, against the wishes of Newcastle City Council. The police became involved but, while it was considered he was guilty of an offence, no prosecution followed because it was not deemed to be in the public interest.
It led Mr Ghai to court to seek clarification of the law and, in 2010, the Court of Appeal ruled that open pyres were legal and, as long as they were carried out within an enclosed building, away from public view and met environmental regulations, they fell within existing legislation.
Because all Mr Ghai wanted was a traditional fire and for the sun to be able to fall on his body – and was happy to have the cremation in a building with no roof or one that was retractable – the Court ruled in his favour, saying that the Ministry of Justice’s definition of a “structure”, ie a building with walls and a roof, was “too narrow”.
A highly passionate man, he had argued that, under his religious beliefs, an open-air pyre was essential to “a good death” and the release of his spirit into the afterlife. “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,” he said at the time. “I am overwhelmed by the general public’s sympathy and also the number of landowners who have offered land to accommodate my natural cremation.”
That was eight years ago. A period of ill health followed for Mr Ghai, who is the President of the Newcastle Anglo Asian Friendship Society, which meant he had to step back from campaigning. But back to better health, he is back on the shirt tail of Newcastle City Council in pursuit of his ambition.
Last month, a poll by the local newspaper, The Chronicle, showed the majority of readers who voted backed him.
Mr Ghai, a recipient in 2007 of the Amnesty International Lifetime Achievement Award for his work in promoting peace and race relations, told The Chronicle recently: “I have been unwell for some time but I’ve 90% recovered now and I want to work on the campaign more. I believe it is down to Newcastle City Council to provide a site or land where funeral pyres can be organised.
“When I wrote to them last, they suggested we would have to find the land ourselves and fund it ourselves. But it should be the council doing this, just as it provides other facilities for burials and cremations.”
At the time of the Court of Appeal ruling, Newcastle City Council accused the Court of failing to take into account “difficulties which may be thrown up by planning and public health legislation should an application be submitted.”
It has consistently raised concerns that the practice would have on air quality and the environment.
It has suggested two routes for Mr Ghai to try – one being to buy some land he deems suitable and make a planning application, and the second being to make a planning application without ownership which, if successful, could then lead to him buying the land.
A city council spokesman added: “Like in other cities, land in Newcastle is at a premium. We are unable to gift land to individuals or groups.”
Read the full story in the March edition of Funeral Director Monthly.