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This Britain

The Big Question: Why do Hindus want open-air cremation, and should it be allowed?

Why are we asking this now?

Because an ageing Hindu guru who is in poor health went to the High Court yesterday to clarify whether it would be illegal for his son to burn his body outdoors once he dies. Newcastle City Council has denied Davender Kumar Ghai, 70, permission to be cremated on an open-air funeral pyre, arguing that such acts are illegal. But Mr Ghai, a devout Hindu from Gosforth, who is revered as a guru by a sizeable following of devotees in the North-east, believes an ordinary cremation would "enslave his soul in endless earthly entrapment" and has gone to the High Court to seek a judicial review.

So are open-air cremations illegal?

That is what Mr Ghai is asking the High Court to decide. The city council and the Ministry of Justice believe they are illegal under the 1902 Cremation Act, which restricts the burning of bodies to a crematorium. But Mr Ghai's lawyer says denying his client the right to an outdoor cremation breaches his human rights and discriminates against him on the grounds of race and religion. He also argues that precedence exists to suggest that open-air cremations are in fact already legal. In 2007, Mr Justice Collins, a High Court judge, agreed and granted Mr Ghai permission for a full hearing because there was evidence to suggest that "the burning of dead bodies in the open air is not necessarily unlawful".

So have open-air cremations happened before?

Yes, and Mr Ghai even presided over the latest one. Three years ago, in a private field in Northumberland Mr Ghai and his supporters cremated Rajpal Mehat, a 31-year-old illegal immigrant who was found drowned in a canal near Slough in Middlesex. The police, who let the cremation go ahead, later admitted the law might have been broken but the Crown declined to prosecute. But there have also been other occasions when outdoor cremations were permitted. During the First World War, scores of Hindu and Sikh soldiers who were killed fighting for the British Empire were cremated in the open outside Brighton, while in 1934 the Government gave Nepal's ambassador permission to cremate his wife outdoors.

Who is Mr Ghai?

A Ugandan-born Hindu who has lived in Britain since 1958, Mr Ghai cuts an unlikely figure as a champion of religious rights. He lives in a one-storey council house in Gosforth and has chosen the ascetic existence of a guru, largely shunning the outside world. Every week, hundreds of devotees flock to listen to his teachings and lovingly refer to him as "Baba Ghai". Disenchanted by a brief stint in local politics, he set up the Anglo-Asian Friendship Society, one of Britain's oldest inter-faith groups. He has won a Unesco Peace Gold Medal and an Amnesty International lifetime achievement award. Frail and in poor health, in recent years he has increasingly campaigned for British Hindus to win the right to hold open-air cremations.

Why are outdoor cremations so important to Hindus?

The intricate rules and ceremonies governing disposal of the dead in Hinduism are more than 4,000 years old, but because there is no central authority different schools have different customs. Yet almost all Hindus regard an open-air cremation as the most auspicious way to release the soul from the body. Hindus believe that for the soul to be reincarnated properly, it must be completely detached from the body and the material world. Some more orthodox families believe a covered electric crematorium fails to do this, allowing the soul to mingle with other souls and condemning the deceased to an inauspicious death that hampers them in the next life.

How much support is there among British Hindus for open-air cremations?

No official poll of Britain's 600,000 Hindus has been carried out, so it is difficult to say – but there certainly is some support. On the Asian subcontinent, millions of such cremations are carried out every year but in Britain Hindus have to make do with ordinary crematoria. Most Hindus have no problem with this, but those who do routinely spend thousands of pounds shipping their loved ones back to southern Asia for a traditional funeral. Many believe that if open-air cremations were legalised, most British Hindus would opt for a traditional ceremony rather than an electric crematorium. When The Independent first met Mr Ghai last year, he complained that none of the major Hindu umbrella organisations were supporting him, but since then many have changed their stance. The UK Hindu Council, one of largest umbrella groups, has suggested a compromise that would allow family members to attend a small cremation which uses an open-topped coffin. The Hindu Forum of Britain, a more orthodox group, has said that open-air cremations should be allowed, but only if a change in the law was made to make them clearly legal, and that any such ceremony should abide by health and safety legislation.

Are there any health implications?

Critics of open-air cremations say the process is polluting and risks releasing potentially dangerous chemicals such as mercury into the atmosphere. Mr Ghai's supporters dismiss such claims. They cite the Government's own research following the foot-and-mouth crisis, which said there was no harm to the public from the hundreds of thousands of animals that were burned on open-air pyres following the outbreak of the disease. If the foot-and-mouth pyres posed no health risk, Mr Ghai argues, then a few hundred or thousand Hindus every year are hardly going to cause problems either.

How would outdoor funerals work?

Mr Ghai's supporters are adamant that any outdoor pyre would be subject to the same strict regulations that govern crematoria. Lurid stories in the Newcastle media suggested Hindus might begin burning bodies on the banks of the River Tyne, but Mr Ghai insists any outdoor cremation would be done in private, far from the public gaze. He has plans to build an outdoor cremation centre, open to Hindus and non-Hindus alike, where pyres and private screening areas could be built. In a bid to open the centre up to the poor, Hindu families who cannot afford to send their loved ones' bodies back to southern Asia would be asked to contribute what they can rather than pay the set fee.

What happens next?

The case is expected to go on for at least three days and the High Court will most likely wait for a few weeks before it issues its verdict. Religious rights cases are very hard to predict. Two cases brought in recent years by a Muslim schoolgirl and a Muslim teacher, both of whom were demanding the right to wear stricter forms of hijab than their school allowed, were dismissed. But last year a Sikh schoolgirl won the right to wear a sacred bracelet after her school tried to exclude her for refusing to take it off. If outdoor cremations are allowed, expect many Hindu families to switch from a crematorium to an open pyre. But don't expect to see bodies burning on the banks of the Tyne or Thames any time soon.