For the first time in over 70 years, a dead man was given an open-air funeral in Britain according to Hindu-Sikh rites, sparking a row on whether such cremations were legal under British law.
The funeral pyre was lit on July 12 in a remote field in Northumberland by Davender Ghai, president of the Newcastle-based Anglo-Asian Friendship Society (AAFS). The organisation has been campaigning for permission
for open-air funerals for British Hindus and Sikhs.
Open-air funerals in Britain have been illegal since 1930.
A spokesman for the Department of Constitutional Affairs said: ?The plain fact is that any funeral pyre is illegal and to burn human remains in the open air is against the law. The 1930 Cremation Act prohibits the cremation of human remains anywhere except in a crematorium.?
However, the AAFS insisted that no offence had been committed. In a statement, it said: ?After reasoned statutory interpretation and an exhaustive review of case law, we are absolutely certain that funeral pyres are legal.
?The Cremation Act exists only to maintain standards in the day-to-day running of local authority crematoria.
?We are aware that some organisations and civil servants claim otherwise but should we rely on their legal interpretation or the legal interpretation of
the courts and most renowned academics and jurists of their generation??
The body cremated was that of Rajpal Mehat, 31, an illegal immigrant Sikh, who had drowned in a canal in Southall in December last year. For months he could not be identified as there were no papers on him.
Ghai'snumber was found on Mehat'smobile number, who later helped track his family in India. He then arranged for his mother and sister to attend the cremation on July 12.
Before the funeral, the Northumbria police had been alerted but allowed it to go ahead after checking the coroner'sreport and other documentation. According to the AAFS, the police were satisfied that all due processes had been adhered to.
However, after the funeral ceremony conducted according to traditional Sikh rites, the police said that offences may have been committed even though it had earlier allowed the event to take place.
Superintendent Graham Smith said: ?In respecting the values and beliefs of all faiths we did not wish to cause any additional upset to a grieving family. This meant all our inquiries were carried out in an extremely sensitive manner before the service got under way.
?Following further investigation, we believe offences may have been committed under the Cremation Act in relation to where human remains can legally be cremated. We are now discussing the matter further with the community, our partners and the local authorities.?
The spokesman for the Department of Constitutional Affairs said that prosecuting anyone who brokes the law is a matter for the police, as the department is not a prosecuting authority.
A spokeswoman for the Environment Agency said it would not be investigating the open-air funeral pyre. ?As far as we are concerned there is no environmental impact. It is no different to scattering an urn of ashes on the ground,? she said.
According to the AAFS, many Hindus and Sikhs in Britain are deeply offended by the use of gas-powered furnaces and many even take their relative'sbodies to India for cremation. At its office in Newcastle, nearly 80 people have reportedly put their name on a list requesting an open pyre after their death.
(The writer is a UK-based journalist)