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Hindu Wins Right to Traditional Cremation in UK

By: for AFP on Feb. 11, 2010
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Photo Credits: AFP
Davender Ghai was refused a permit for an open-air cremation site in Northumberland in 2006.

An elderly Hindu man on Wednesday won the right to be cremated on a traditional funeral pyre in Britain, after a ruling by the Court of Appeal in London.

Davender Ghai, who moved to Britain from Kenya in 1958 and is the founder of the Anglo-Asian Friendship Society, was refused a permit for an open-air cremation site in Northumberland, northeast England, in 2006.

The 71-year-old lost a challenge to the decision at the High Court in London last May, but on Wednesday the Appeal Court said Ghai's wishes could be accommodated within existing legislation.

Ghai welcomed the ruling, although he said his court battle had drained him "physically, mentally and financially."

"Now if I go tomorrow I will go peacefully, because I know that I will have a good send-off. Everyone should live and die according to their own religion," he told reporters outside the court.

Britain's Cremation Act of 1902, which covers the disposal by burning of dead bodies in crematoria, does not cover funeral pyres.

The government, named as an interested party in the case, argued during the case that "others in the community would be upset and offended... and would find it abhorrent that human remains were being burned in this way."

But Ghai's lawyers argued that denying him the right to an open-air pyre conflicts with human rights legislation which protects, among other rights, the right to freedom of religious belief.

Judge David Neuberger asked Ghai's lawyer what his client wanted and was told the funeral pyre should be made of wood and be open to the sky -- but it could be surrounded by walls and the pyre covered with a roof with an opening.

"It seems to us that 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," said Neuberger, who led a three-judge panel.

A spokesman for Newcastle City Council, which rejected Ghai's initial application, said it now wants the Home Office to clarify guidelines on cremations.

"The Court of Appeal's judgment, which is of national importance, advised that buildings of open-air design can fall within the definition of crematoria under the terms of the Cremation Act 1902," it said.

Local authorities "await further guidance... 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 added.

In a statement, Ghai welcomed public support for his case. "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 am overwhelmed by the general public's sympathy and also the number of landowners who have offered land to accommodate my natural cremation," he added.

During the court battle Ghai's lawyer Ramby De Mello said his client wanted an open pyre where he would be burnt on logs, cremated "in a sacrament of fire" and would receive Vedic last rights.

He also wanted the pyre to be close to flowing water and did not want to be burned by gas flames. After the cremation he wants his ashes to be immersed in the River Ganges, he added.

The 2001 Census found there were nearly 550,000 Hindus in England, making up one percent of the population, with the vast majority living in urban areas.

[ cremation ] [ uk ]