LONDON // A Hindu pensioner launched a legal bid yesterday to overturn a ban on the burning of bodies in the open air in the United Kingdom. The action at the High Court in London could, if successful, be used as precedent, allowing Hindus to follow their religious practice of holding an open-air funeral pyre anywhere in England and Wales.
At present, the only recourse for many Hindus in Britain is to have their bodies flown back to India for public cremation. The case, scheduled to last three days, is being brought by Davender Ghai, 70, a devout Hindu who is bringing the test case against the Newcastle city council. Council lawyers will argue that open-air cremations are banned in law, a situation that the ministry of justice supports on legal, health and environmental grounds.
However, Mr Ghai, who has the backing of many Hindu and Sikh organisations throughout the country, insists that the process is essential to free the soul after death and his legal team argued yesterday that the 1902 Cremation Act did not specifically outlaw outdoor religious cremations. If it did, his lawyers added, then it was incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights because it discriminated against Mr Ghai's right to protection for his private life and religious and cultural beliefs.
Andrew Singh Bogan, Mr Ghai's lawyer, said a successful challenge would "create a precedent for all local authorities to grant open air funeral pyres if there was demand in their area". Hindus have been carrying out such cremations for more than 4,000 years, but similar ceremonies are not feasible in existing British crematoriums, where bodies are burnt in large ovens. In 2006, city councillors in Newcastle-upon-Tyne refused Mr Ghai permission to establish an open-air site for cremations, citing the 1902 act.
Mr Ghai, who originally came to Britain from Kenya and who is the founder of the Anglo-Asian Friendship Society, subsequently organised the cremation of a fellow Hindu in a field just outside the city. Police investigated and said the service was probably illegal but the Crown Prosecution Service decided not to prosecute anyone on the grounds that it would not be in the public interest. Mr Ghai said before the hearing, known as a judicial review, that he was seeking to "clarify and enforce the law, not disrespect it".
He added: "As a Hindu, I believe my soul should be liberated in consecrated fire, 'agni', after death - a sacramental rebirth, like the mythical phoenix arising from the flames anew. "I will not deny my claim is provocative, least of all in a nation as notoriously squeamish towards death as our own. However, I honestly do not believe natural cremation grounds would offend public decency, as long as they were discreet, designated sites far from urban and residential areas."
Mr Ghai said he believed that his soul was in jeopardy because of the ban. "I have lived my entire life by the Hindu scriptures and they have inspired me to charitably serve this country for over 30 years. In the frailty of my twilight, I now yearn to die by them. "Far beyond my own death, I hope my struggle will provide a legacy for those who would not be in a position to undertake such an enormous challenge."
Mr Ghai said local councils provided separate cemeteries for Jews and Muslims, which accommodated almost instant burials. "Hindus should cremate before the following sunset too and yet we, along with the general public, wait for up to a week," he said. The Newcastle city council would not comment on the case yesterday because of the High Court action, but Mr Bogan said he expected the authority's lawyers to argue that open-air cremations were "abhorrent" to the bulk of the population.
"In the end, this case could come down to the nebulous issue of whether this is seen as 'British' or not," he said. A spokesman at the ministry of justice said: "There are inevitably competing views on the appropriate arrangements for disposing of bodies stemming from different views about religion, morals and decency. "The current law requires that cremations must take place in a crematorium and open-air funeral pyres are not allowed. The government considers that this requirement is justified, taking into account the complex social and political issues raised."
Opinion over the open-air pyres has been divided among the 500,000-plus Hindus in Britain but, recently, the UK Hindu Council has backed Mr Ghai saying that the "individual choice of those Hindus who follow the directives of Hindu scriptures and wish to have open air funerals, should be honoured". firstname.lastname@example.org