Charles Cowling

“The Hindus of Britain have never asked for anything,” says Mr Gai of the Anglo-Asian Friendship Society “but we’re not asking for much, just to cremate our loved ones in the way our religion says it must be done.”

The issue of open-air cremation is hotting up as Newcastle-based Mr Gai prepares to go the High Court next month to demand the right to have his body disposed of in accordance with his religious beliefs.

He’s got precedents on his side. In 1884 the colourful Dr William Price cremated his five month-old son Jesus Christ on an open-air pyre. He was prosecuted, and acquitted on the grounds that cremation is not illegal if it creates no nuisance. When he died, Dr Price himself went up in smoke on top of two tons of coal. His successful test of the law was the green flag the Cremation Society was waiting for. Britain’s first-ever crematorium, at Woking, was in business at last, its first customer the pioneering (if inert) Mrs Pickersgill.

There are other precedents. You can read about them here.

Mr Gai’s challenge will, doubtless, come down to an evaluation of both the aesthetic and environmental effects of outdoor cremation. It is not long since measures to control foot and mouth disease in the UK blackened the sun and cloaked the countryside with the smoke and stench of burning cattle carcases, so no problem there. But those innocent beasts did not have teeth filled with mercury amalgam, and vaporised mercury is particularly nasty emission.

Invocation of a Supreme Being is often an effective way of bypassing standard procedures, leaving those who defer either to no deity, or to one with no political clout, in second-class-citizen position. There was a row last month over a man whose body couldn’t be buried on a Saturday because he wasn’t a Muslim. Read about it here.

Let us hope that Mr Gai will be successful and that the judgement will permit open-air cremation for anyone who opts for it. Does that mean that the derelict shipyards of the Tyne will be replaced by burning ghats?

No — regrettably or otherwise. Open-air cremation is perceived to be a religious requirement only by some Hindus. And for a very few non-Hindus it is an elemental desire which cannot be reduced to a mere reason. It’s a tiny niche market, but one which nevertheless deserves to go the way of its choosing.

Let’s not forget that our ‘bonfire’ derives from the Middle English ‘bone fire’.

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