British court upholds ailing Hindu’s plea for open air funeral

By Dipankar De Sarkar, IANS,

London : A British court Wednesday upheld an ailing 71-year-old Hindu’s plea to be allowed to be cremated on an open pyre, sparking celebrations among Hindus in Britain.

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Master of the Rolls Lord Neuberger told the Appeals Court that “open air” funeral pyres are lawful under British law, fulfilling Davender Kumar Ghai’s plea to be “naturally cremated in a sacrament of fire”.

Ghai, who suffered a stroke in December 2009 and is said to be “very ill,” has been battling for years to be allowed a Hindu cremation.

But his local Newcastle City Council in northern England rejected his appeal in 2006, arguing open-air cremations contravened Britain’s Cremation Act of 1902 – a decision that was upheld by the High Court in May 2009.

Overturning the High Court verdict, Neuberger ruled Wednesday: “I have come to the conclusion that Mr Ghai’s wishes as to how, after his death, his remains are to be cremated can be accommodated under the Act and the Regulations.”

Neuberger quoted directions from an 1884 case where a man was acquitted after cremating the body of his son in a field in Wales, saying: “Not every practice which startles and jars upon the religious sentiments of the majority of the population is for that reason a misdemeanour at common law.”

Ghai, a multi-faith campaigner who heads a charity called the Anglo-Asian Friendship Society, said he was “overjoyed”.

“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.

“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.”

Ghai said his plea had often been “misinterpreted,” leading authorities to believe he wanted to be cremated in an open field, “whereas I always accepted that buildings and permanent structures would be appropriate.”

Ghai said a number of landowners had come up with offers of land for open-air cremation and urged others to “come forward with their support and enable the construction of a natural cremation site within my lifetime.”

The case was backed by the major Hindu national umbrella organisations in Britain, in addition to Sikh gurdwaras, despite a claim by Britain’s Justice Ministry that “the vast majority” of the British people considered the very thought of such open cremations to be “abhorrent.”

Ghai said Wednesday: “I was very saddened by the insensitivity of the government’s approach.”