Hindu healer wins funeral pyre battle

It took four years of complex legal wrangling, nearly bankrupted an ailing Hindu guru and has cost the tax-payer tens of thousands of pounds. But in the end open air cremations were legal all along.





That was the surprise verdict from the Court of Appeal earlier today who ruled that there is nothing in Britain’s cremation laws specifically forbidding someone from cremating themselves in the open air – as long as it is conducted in an enclosed building away from the public’s gaze and abides by environmental regulations.



Their judgement is a remarkable victory for Davender Kumar Ghai, a 71-year-old Hindu holy man from Newcastle who has fought an expensive – and at times lonely – battle against the combined might of Newcastle City Council and the Ministry of Justice who argued that outdoor cremations were illegal.



As he was carried out of the Royal Courts of Justice by his jubilant supporters, Mr Ghai remarked that judges had “breathed new life into an old man's dreams".



“I always maintained that I wanted to clarify the law, not disobey or disrespect it,” he said. “My request was often misinterpreted, leading many to believe I wanted a funeral pyre cremation in an open field, whereas I always accepted that buildings and permanent structures would be appropriate. Now I may go in peace.”



Today's judgement overturns a previous ruling from the High Court last year which ruled that Newcastle City Council had been “justified” in refusing Mr Ghai’s family to burn his body on an open pyre following his death.



That particular case largely centred around whether denying Mr Ghai an open funeral pyre would be a breach on his human rights.



But three Court of Appeal judges, led by Master of the Rolls Lord Justice Neuberger, said there was a much simpler way to decide the case. If Mr Ghai could prove that what he wanted fell within existing law then there should be nothing to stop him from finding or building a crematorium which would meet his wishes.



In the end they decided that Mr Ghai’s wishes to burn on a pyre enclosed within a large structure but open to the elements was not forbidden by the Cremation Act 1902.



In summing up his judgement Lord Justice Neuberger ruled: “Contrary to what everyone seems to have assumed below, and I am not saying it is anyone's fault, 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."



The landmark ruling paves the way for anyone in Britain – be they Hindu, Sikh, religious or non-religious – to opt for an open air cremation as long as they can find a crematorium which can conduct the cremations without falling foul of the strict environmental and public health regulations surrounding the disposal of bodies. Currently no such facility exists although the expectation is that some orthodox Hindus will hope to build one soon.



Newcastle City Council, which has accepted the court’s verdict, have now called on the Home Office and Defra to produce clear guidelines for local councils in case they receive planning applications from organisations wanting to build an open air facility.



Mr Ghai told The Independent that he would be hoping to build an open air crematorium “as soon as possible”. He has received “concrete offers” from three benefactors who are willing to give his followers land to build an outdoor crematorium, one of whom is a Lord with large amounts of property in the north of England who has expressed sympathy with Mr Ghai’s cause. “I will need to go back to them now and see whether they are willing to continue that support,” he said.



Andrew Singh Bogan, one of Mr Ghai’s followers (who refer to their guru “Babaji”), said they will now begin drawing up architectural plans for a crematorium that they hope will be given the go-ahead by a sympathetic local council.



“We would probably base it on an outdoor facility that is used by Hindus in the Spanish enclave of Ceuta,” he explained. “It’s a beautiful building with an open roof that is completely private to the outside world.”



Opinion is divided within the British Hindu community over whether open air cremations are a religious necessity or a luxury. Orthodox Hindus like Mr Ghai believe that cremation inside a mechanical crematorium would lead to “akal mrtyu” - a bad death that would hamper his soul’s chances of reincarnation in the next life. But others say the soul leaves the body as soon as someone dies and regard open air pyres as something that should be consigned to the history books.



The vast majority of Britain’s Hindu population have no theological problem with mechanical crematoria, but some do spend thousands of pounds shipping the bodies of their loved ones back to the South Asian subcontinent for a traditional outdoor cremation.



When Mr Ghai first began agitating for open air funerals he found little support from within the wider Hindu community whose leaders were initially reluctant to publicly back him, fearing it would lead to a public backlash. Ironically it took a remark from Justice Secretary Jack Straw to rally Britain’s Hindus to Mr Ghai’s cause.



Last year Mr Straw stated he was opposed to open air cremations because he believed the public would "find it abhorrent that human remains were being burned in this way.” The remark upset large numbers of Hindus who believed it was insulting to describe a ceremony practiced by millions of Hindus, Sikhs, Jain and Buddhists in South Asia as “abhorrent”. From then on all the major Hindu community organisations including the Hindu Forum and the Hindu Council, as well as a small body of Sikh gurudwaras (temples), began backing Mr Ghai’s bid.



But even if an open air crematorium is eventually built, many believe there will still be limited take up. Chandu Tailor, who runs one of the country’s largest Asian funeral companies, told The Independent: “I don’t think we’d suddenly see very Hindu in Britain opting for an open air cremation. Most people are perfectly happy with the normal crematoria. What they really want most are proper facilities to be able to prepare the body according to religious rituals.”



For Mr Ghai and his supporters, the race against time is still on.



“Babaji is not well,” explained Mr Bogan. “He had a mild stroke before Christmas and time is short. What we need to do now is get a facility built as quickly as possible, otherwise today will simply be a paper victory.”

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
Ben Little, right, is a Labour supporter while Jonathan Rogers supports the Green Party
general election 2015
News
The 91st Hakone Ekiden Qualifier at Showa Kinen Park, Tokyo, 2014
news
Life and Style
Former helicopter pilot Major Tim Peake will become the first UK astronaut in space for over 20 years
food + drinkNothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
News
Kim Wilde began gardening in the 1990s when she moved to the countryside
peopleThe singer is leading an appeal for the charity Thrive, which uses the therapy of horticulture
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Sport
Alexis Sanchez celebrates scoring a second for Arsenal against Reading
football
Life and Style
health
Voices
An easy-peel potato; Dave Hax has come up with an ingenious method in food preparation
voicesDave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
News
i100
News
Japan's population is projected to fall dramatically in the next 50 years (Wikimedia)
news
Life and Style
Buyers of secondhand cars are searching out shades last seen in cop show ‘The Sweeney’
motoringFlares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own