The video above (I’m sorry, I can’t embed it) shows, or purports to show, an open-air cremation in Colorado. I am indebted to m’learned friend, the humane, wise and scholarly Pat McNally, for putting me onto it. It is the subject of his latest blog post. If you are not a regular reader of Pat’s blog you can look forward to many happy hours in his archive. It’s a treasure trove.
Here in the UK the Anglo-Asian Friendship Society is preparing to go to Court of Appeal to contest the ban on open-air cremation upheld in the High Court in May 2009, a case notorious for the intervention of that conspicuous enemy of liberty, the Justice Secretary Jack Straw. He placed open-air cremation in a context of cultural barbarity, opining that evolved, indigenous Britishers would be “upset and offended” by funeral pyres and “find it abhorrent that human remains were being burnt in this way”. He thus set open-air cremation firmly in its place alongside honour killing, the stoning of homosexuals, the mutilation of minor criminals and all manner of exotic, benighted, imported cruelty. The message to our brown-skinned brothers and sisters was clear: you can’t come over here and do that sort of thing in a civilised country like this.
There was very little backlash against Mr Straw’s disdainful dismissal of the funerary rites of a mere 800 million Hindus worldwide. Indeed, many British Hindus lent strength to his argument by declaring that they were perfectly happy to go down to t’crem and be clinically incinerated like anyone else.
Straw created a potent sideshow. Open-air cremation is, he said, culturally alien and aesthetically unacceptable. Neither point of view stands a second’s scrutiny, yet he carried the day. His reasoning was puerile and you need to challenge it.
First, let’s lift open-air cremation out of the cultural cesspit into which Straw contemptuously dumped it. It is not the preserve of a minority of Hindus. It is a disposal option favoured by people of all sorts and all races, of all religions and of none.
And we’re not talking about opening floodgates here. If open-air cremation were to be re-legalised (its present ban is of dubious legality), would the sun all at once be darkened by the smoke of burning carcasses? Would it happen in beauty spots, waste ground, people’s back gardens? Of course not. Firstly, only a very few people would opt for it. Secondly, they would do it lovingly, privately. No one would notice—unless they’d been invited.
There’s a very simple issue of personal liberty at stake here. Nothing should be allowed to stand in the way of people whose actions adversely affect no one else.
There’s also an irony at work. Step forward, please, Dr Price!
William Price first attracted attention as a schoolboy by reading poetry as he walked through the countryside naked. After qualifying as a doctor he became involved in revolutionary politics. He was a druid, given to wearing a red waistcoat, green trousers and a fox pelt on his head.
In 1883, when he was 80, he took as his lover a woman sixty years younger. With her he had a son whom he named Jesus Christ. Jesus died when he was five months old. In accordance with ancient druidical practice, Dr Price proceeded to burn his body. A horrified crowd gathered and snatched the body from the flames. Price was prosecuted. He was acquitted, and the judgement delivered that cremation is legal so long as no nuisance is caused to others.
It was a landmark ruling. When it was made, the furnace of Cremation Society’s first crematorium at Woking had lain unfired since its installation five years previously, timorously awaiting a legal green flag. Dr Price secured the breakthrough the Cremation Society had been hoping for and, without further ado, the pioneering (if prostrate) Mrs Pickersgill became Woking’s first client.
The cogency of the judgement remains incontestable. So long as no nuisance is caused to others, cremation is legal. The irony of the judgement remains poignant: it was brought about by an indigenous open-air cremationist.
If you want to lend your voice to the Anglo-Asian Friendship Society’s appeal, please write now to Andrew Singh Bogan: firstname.lastname@example.org.