The Times July 13, 2006

'Illegal' funeral pyre burnt in secret
By Andrew Norfolk

The first open-air cremation to be carried out in Britain since 1934

A MANíS body was reduced to ashes in a farmerís field yesterday, after a small group of mourners witnessed the lighting of Britainís first open-air funeral pyre for 72 years.

The 4,000-year-old Hindu ceremony, considered essential for the successful reincarnation of the soul, was held for a 31-year-old Indian man who was found drowned in a London canal last December.

Rajpal Mehatís grief-stricken mother and sister flew from India to attend the funeral in a clearing at a secret location in rural Northumberland. They wept inconsolably as his coffin, covered in a white cloth, was placed on the 2ft-high pyre, then covered with more wood to create a pyramid that was set alight with a blazing torch as a Brahmin priest led chanting.

Flowers were thrown on to the wood, incense burnt from 36 holy herbs and water from the Ganges was sprinkled around the pyre from an earthenware pot before it was smashed to mark the release of the soul from the body. When the flames took hold, the pyre and the coffin burnt fiercely.

The Times was the only national newspaper invited to the ceremony, which was planned in secret because Newcastle City Council has ruled that human pyres are unlawful.

Northumbria Police at first said that they were happy for the funeral to go ahead, but after further investigation said they believed that offences may have been committed.

That was underlined by the Department of Constitutional Affairs. A spokesman said last night: ďThe 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.Ē

Mr Mehatís funeral was organised by a charity that is fighting to win recognition for the right of British Hindus and Sikhs to hold open-air funerals.

It hopes that the day will set a precedent for thousands of future funerals to be held on open land at approved locations across the country. Britain is home to 490,000 Hindus and 310,000 Sikhs.

The Newcastle-based Anglo-Asian Friendship Society believes that it has identified a loophole under which the ceremony cannot be defined as a cremation because it did not take place in a crematorium.

It is also relying on a 2005 case in which a 49-year-old man was prosecuted for continuing to collect his late motherís pension. She died of natural causes and David Wrigglesworth burnt her body in the back garden but Judge James Stewart, QC, said he had not intended to obstruct an inquest.

An inquest has already been opened and adjourned into the death of Mr Mehat, an illegal immigrant who was found in the Grand Union Canal at Southall, West London. Davender Kumar Ghai, 67, the societyís founder and president, helped the police to identify Mr Mehatís body and flew to India to arrange visas for the dead manís relatives, after the authorities ruled that the body was unfit to be taken home.

Mr Mehat, a taxi driver in his home of Kapurthala, in Punjab, came to Britain in search of work two years ago after his fatherís death left him as the sole means of support for his mother and sister.

After the pyre burnt itself out Mr Mehatís ashes were gathered to be flown to India, where his family will scatter them in the Ganges.