x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

New crematorium brings comfort to many faiths

Non-Muslim families outside Dubai struggled for years to cremate relatives, but Al Ain's multifaith facility finally has manager at helm.

The Right Reverend Michael Lewis, Anglican Bishop of Cyprus and the Gulf, blesses the new burial ground and crematoriam at St Thomas' Church in Al Ain.
The Right Reverend Michael Lewis, Anglican Bishop of Cyprus and the Gulf, blesses the new burial ground and crematoriam at St Thomas' Church in Al Ain.

AL AIN // Ten kilometres west of Hili border port in Al Ain, a multifaith graveyard and crematorium had sat for years, untouched and unused.

The single-storey, brown building was built five years ago by Al Ain Municipality to serve non-Muslims of every faith, on the orders of Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces.

But when officials tried to hire someone to operate the facility, they ran into an obstacle. Everyone they approached said no one could adequately cater to the diverse funeral requirements of the many religions represented in the UAE.

While multifaith temples can be found in other parts of the world, no one in the Emirates had any experience of running one.

But officials would not give up. Two years ago they turned to Don Fox, a Briton who has lived here for two decades, working in the Abu Dhabi morgue.

"[The Municipality] was dealing with the unknown," he said. "They had the building but didn't know what to do with it.

"No one thought it could be a multifaith building, it had to be either Christian or Hindu exclusively. That is why it has taken so long."

Having seen expatriates struggle for years with the lack of a place to bury or cremate their loved ones, he decided to accept the challenge.

For the past five years, the country's only operational crematorium has been at the Dubai Hindu temple, but it was open only to residents in that emirate.

There was no licensed crematorium in Abu Dhabi, leaving Hindu families to cremate their dead on an unlicensed bonfire near a rubbish tip in Al Ain - a practice that was stopped by police this year.

That left Abu Dhabi residents who wanted to cremate their relatives having to ship them back to their home country at a cost of about Dh30,000.

"So I went to the UK to take a training course in cremation," Mr Fox said. And after another course, he was appointed as manager of the crematorium, graveyard, and a building that was designed to suit all religions, but not to resemble the church or temple of any one in particular.

The crematorium has had its licence now for almost two months, and any resident, from any emirate, can use it.

"Now people can be cremated in a very professional and dignified way," Mr Fox said.

The building was officially opened on Thursday evening, with a blessing ceremony presided over by the Anglican Bishop of Cyprus and the Gulf, the Right Reverend Michael Lewis. Among those present were leaders of other faiths, and the British and Indian ambassadors.

Gopi Pandiath, a spokesman for the Indian Social Centre in Al Ain, thanked Mr Fox that evening for the "relief" the crematorium brought to the Indian community.

"Hindus must be cremated," Mr Fox said.

"In tradition, the oldest son lights the body with a match.

"Here, the family can sit in another room with a glass window to watch. Sometimes, the eldest son can come and push the green button to start the process."

Sixteen bodies have been cremated in the past month and a half. Sadly, Mr Fox said, most have been newborn babies, which cannot be repatriated as they have no passport.

"Being repatriated is expensive," he said. "Cremation is a much cheaper process."

Every Friday at 10am, the building becomes St Thomas' Church. But after the service all religious iconography will be removed from the premises to make way for followers of any other faith, who are also expected to remove all religious symbols when they leave.

"As far as burial and cremation, we are delighted to have something we can share with different faiths," said Bishop Lewis.

osalem@thenational.ae