M’learned friends have spoken. Davender Ghai’s appeal to the high court to overturn Newcastle City Council’s ban on open-air cremation has been turned down like a bedspread. The 1902 Cremation Act was used in evidence against him. Funny, that. I thought the Act applied only to cremations in a crematorium. Well, that was the thinking when the Act was drawn up. They weren’t thinking of funeral pyres at all when they wrote it.
Public reaction has been a) predictable and b) manipulated. If you want to get people to get behind this sort of thing, play the race card. Associate it in some way with outlandish practices like wife beating and honour killing and the cutting off of hands. Touch a xenophobic chord. Elicit the customary spittle-flecked rant: “Send ‘em back, for god’s sake. They can’t do that sort of thing over here, ‘course they can’t. This is a civilised society. Fair play and decency, that’s what we stand for. Bloody hell, they’ll be wanting towers of silence, next. And sati, for christssake. The floodgates’ll open …”
Our Justice Secretary, Jack Straw, understands this very well. He did it deftly and cunningly in 2006 when he asked his constituents to remove their niqab before talking to him. On funeral pyres, his message is that non-Hindus would be “upset and offended” by them. They’d “find it abhorrent that human remains were being burned in this way”.
There’s one in the eye for a practice which has endured for thousands of years. The inference is that it’s barbaric, as are the 800 million Hindus who practise it. And, yes, come to think of it, isn’t it just the antithesis of our own enlightened and aesthetically advanced methods of disposing of dead bodies? We either place our corpses so deep in the ground that they rot horribly and resolve themselves into methane and sludge, or we place them in a retort and burn them aggressively with gas jets, just as farmers do with dead livestock.
The debate about open-air cremation has centred on the cultural practices of certain Hindus. This has been and continues to be a distraction.
The truth of the matter is that a certain number of people of all faiths and none at all would like to be burned on a pyre. It is a very small number. It will not become a mass movement. They won’t want to do it in city-centre parks or beauty spots but on private land, in privacy.
And, do you know, there’s actually very little to stop you—if you are prepared to practise a little light deception. Simply send the paperwork, signed by two doctors, to the crematorium, where it will be scrutinised by the medical referee, who will approve cremation. That’s your green flag.
Cancel the crem at the last minute. Do not offer an explanation. Mumble, if necessary, about alternative arrangements.
You are now free to take your dead person to a remote location and have yourself a merry pyre, holding in mind all the while the inspiring consideration that our word ‘bonfire’ derives from the Old English ‘banefire’—literally, a bone fire.
Tell the registrar you buried the body on private land.
Note: you did not read this here first. If they come to get you, you’ve never heard of me. My purpose is only to helpfully point out a loophole to our lawmakers.