Court ponders Hindu man's funeral pyre plea

A Hindu fighting for the right to be cremated on a traditional funeral pyre took his case to the Court of Appeal today.

There he was told by a panel of judges headed by the Master of the Rolls, Lord Neuberger, that all he had to show was that what he wanted fell within existing law.

Spiritual healer Davender Ghai, 71, who believes that a pyre is essential to "a good death" and the release of his spirit into the afterlife, was refused permission to be cremated according to his Hindu beliefs by Newcastle City Council.

Mr Ghai, from Gosforth, Newcastle upon Tyne, lost his challenge at the High Court in London in May last year when Mr Justice Cranston ruled that pyres were prohibited by law and this was "justified".

Lord Neuberger asked Rambert de Mello, representing Mr Ghai, what his client wanted and was told that the funeral pyre would have to be of wood and be open to the sky but the site could be surrounded by walls and the pyre covered with a roof which had an opening.

Lord Neuberger said that if it could be shown that these requirements complied with the Cremation Act 1902, "that will be the end of the case".

The judge said the court would hear argument on that point alone before deciding whether to continue on human rights and discrimination points.

Jonathan Swift, representing the Ministry of Justice which is opposing the case, said the law stipulated that cremations must be within a building which in this case meant a structure bounded by walls with a roof.

What Mr Ghai was proposing did not comply with the law which was there to protect "decorum and decency", he told the judges.

The judges adjourned the hearing to a later date to give a ruling on whether Mr Ghai's proposals complied with existing law.

Lord Neuberger said the judgment may bring the proceedings to an end.

Mr Ghai, the founder of the Anglo-Asian Friendship Society (AAFS), seeks a permit for an open-air cremation site in a remote part of Northumberland.

In a statement issued before today's hearing, Mr Ghai said: "I want to clarify and enforce the law, not disrespect it.

"If natural cremations can be performed with absolute safety and consideration for others, then quite simply, why shouldn't they be allowed?

"Of course, this is a sensitive issue and I have tried to present my case in the most dignified and respectful way I can. I understand some people feel uneasy about faith minorities asking for special rights but I am not trying to be divisive or offend anyone.

"I am the first to insist that natural cremations should be performed with absolute safety, respect and privacy. I have tried to live with dignity my entire life, now I now yearn to die and be cremated with dignity too.

"I want my soul to arise from the flames like the mythical phoenix, not be incinerated in an industrial furnace."