LONDON – Britain’s Hindus and Sikhs want the right to stage open-air cremations on funeral pyres so their dead can take an unimpeded path to reincarnation. “Without these essential last rites, the soul languishes in restless torment,” said Davender Ghai of the Anglo-Asian Friendship Society, a charity that is seeking to overturn a 75-year-old ban.
They are offended by the use of gas-powered crematorium furnaces and fearful that the ashes could be inadvertently mixed with others. Arguing that the law unfairly penalises followers of both religions, the charity has asked permission from local authorities in the northern English city of Newcastle to cremate their dead in the open air.
If the council refuses, they plan to take their case to the High Court in London and the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg if necessary. Up to 70 percent of people who die in Britain every year are cremated. Ghai said that at present many Hindus and Sikhs “take the ashes to the river Ganges because they think the last rites are not proper here because of gas-fuelled crematoriums.
“I am not blaming the funeral directors. They do their best but ashes should not be mixed,” he told Reuters. More than 550,000 Hindus and an estimated 320,000 Sikhs live in Britain where open-air cremations have been banned since 1930 amid environmental concerns over mercury emissions.
“This is the first time we have asked for anything. I am just praying and hoping,” Ghai said.
Andrew Bogan, legal adviser to the charity’s 2,000 members, said it was sad and poignant that having made their home in Britain, they should have to go continents away to find peace for their dead.
Explaining the sensitivities, he said: “Reincarnation is the fundamental tenet of the Hindu religion and the point of death and the ceremony and disposal to a large degree determines transmigration of the soul and its next embodiment. “Under no circumstances must there be any intermingling of the ashes. Modern crematoriums have up to 12 services a day so guaranteeing this is just not possible. For Hindus that is catastrophic.” A spokesman for Newcastle City Council said of the proposal: ”Until we have had time to examine the legal, environmental and financial implications involved, we are not in a position to comment.” But Bogan said he was he was confident of victory, concluding, “We are gathering signatures for a petition but we don’t want to bang the door down yet and start jumping on the desk.”