Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Burning issues

Price hike repays cremation fees The cost of cremations in Jersey is to rise by 69% in 2010, following approval by the treasury minister. The move will see cremation costs rise from £317 to £535 at the Westmount Crematorium, St Helier. It follows a request by the health department, which said cremation charges had been below the actual cost of the service for several years.  The department said the increase would recoup the losses, without putting costs above those of a burial.  Charges had been due to increase by 10% a year, but this had not included some overheads and depreciation, which the health department said it needed to account for quickly.(1)

£535 will be the new cost of a cremation - Philip Ozouf's price hike up from £317, which means that it is actually cheaper to get cremated in some parts of the UK than in Jersey! Carlisle, for instance, charges £510, whereas Wakefield charges only £455.

At a time when people are grieving, and in a credit crunch, this is pretty insensitive. It is being justified by the fact that it had not increased for some time, but it seems a poor time to do so when public sector pay is frozen, private sector employers are also looking at cut backs and freezes. Why not wait until the economy recovers? An alternative would be to phase in an increase over a few years so that it is not such a great rise at once.

There are, at present, no alternatives apart from a traditional burial, and the State has control over burial and cremation.

There is at the moment an investigation into a site suitable for woodland burial, but the main problems (according to Tony Keogh when I spoke to him last weekend) are twofold - (1) policing it in some manner, to ensure that it is not vandalised in any way or simply treated disprespectully (as a general park), and (2) ensuring that bodies are buried deep enough so that dogs do not dig them up.

The United Kingdom is seeing more challenges to its own control of funeral rites, as it becomes more multicultural, although at present, this has been resisted (in 2009)

THE High Court has rejected the argument that the prohibition on open-air cremations in the United Kingdom amounted to a violation of human rights. The judgment, issued on 8 May, affects those who believe that failure to have their bodies burned on an open pyre would have a devastating effect on them in the afterlife. Davender Kumar Ghai, an or­thodox Hindu, said that funeral pyres were an integral part of the trans­migration of souls, and that the ab­sence of pyres in the UK had led bereaved Hindu families to suffer remorse. He said that dedicated grounds for open-air funeral pyres were the only safeguard for sincere religious observants. He sent an "earnest request" on behalf of the Anglo Asian Friendship Society to the leader of Newcastle upon Tyne City Council, asking for the provision of land about ten to 12 miles from the city and adjacent to flowing water for
traditional open-air funeral pyres.

Under the Cremation Act 1902, and regulations made in 2008, it is a criminal offence to burn human re­mains other than in a crematorium. A crematorium is defined as a build­ing; so all that is required is that cremations take place in buildings. The design of the building and its internal arrangements are not pre­scribed. The Secretary of State for Justice, who appeared as an interested party to the proceedings, argued that others in the community would be upset and offended by open-air funeral pyres, and would find it abhorrent that human remains were being burned in that way. The judge, Mr Justice Cranston, said that this was a difficult and sensitive issue, and for that reason those democratically elected, with the legitimacy that election conferred, were better-placed than a court to decide where the balance lay. It was a matter where opinions reasonably differed, and the balance struck by elected representatives was entitled to be given special weight. It was within their remit to con­clude that a significant number of people would find cremation on open pyres a matter of offence. In the judge's view, the prohibition on open-air funeral pyres in the 1902 Act and 2008 regulations was justified.(6)

And yet this was not an extremist, but simply a devout Hindu:

Davender Kumar Ghai, the devout Hindu at the centre of the case, fits no one's idea of a radical minority-rights activist.  He has lived in Britain since 1958, is the founding president of the Anglo-Asian Friendship Society and the holder of a Unesco Peace Gold Medal and an Amnesty International lifetime achievement award.(6)

The blog, the Daily Undertaker, has commented that a secret open air Hinda funeral had in fact taken place a few years ago:

Three years ago, in a secluded field in Northumberland, The Times witnessed the lighting of Britain's first open-air funeral pyre since the Home Office authorised one for a Nepalese princess at Woking in 1934.  The mother and sister of an Indian man who died aged 31 were among a small group of mourners, led by Mr Ghai, who watched as his body, covered in a white cloth, was placed on the wooden pyre.  A Brahmin priest led chanting as flowers were thrown into the consecrated fire. Incense burnt, water from the Ganges was sprinkled and an earthenware pot smashed to symbolise the soul's release and rebirth.  The ceremony was held in secret because Newcastle City Council had ruled that it was outlawed by the 1902 Cremation Act.(4)

One writer, Charles Cowling, commented that:
"As a point of interest, I visited Carl Marlow, the UK funeral director who undertook the most recent (2006) open-air cremation over here, on the day when he had retrieved what he could from the burnt-out pyre. There were some small bones, no more than a few inches long, and not unsightly, I think, or likely to shock. But he had used a good deal of coal under the wood."(5)

It is ironic that Hindus are not permitted to have open air cremations, because cremations came about as legally permissable because of an open air funeral.

Dr William Price (1800-1893) who fought and won a court case for the right to cremate his son - thus ensuring that cremation was permitted in English courts - forced the issue into the courts by attempting to burn the body of his dead infant son on a pyre of coal on a hillside overlooking Llantrisant. Because there was no statute against cremation, he argued that it should be permissible, and won his case, which was a landmark victory - before that cremations had been regarded as illegal, even though no test case had come to court. Dr Price himself himself was cremated on a pyre of two tons of coal in 1893. It was only in 1902 that cremations were brought into State control and State run crematoriums.



rosie said...

With reference to the search for a woodland burial site in Jersey. I am quite amused by the worry of dogs digging up human remains, I have never visited the Islands but am now puzzled about the kind of dogs that you breed there.
With regards the vandalism and policing; from my experience kids are drawn to regular cemeteries as drinking hangouts but not to natural burial sites. There is nothing there for them to vandalise, they are boring places which is part of their charm.
The pyre business is now in the hands of the European courts, it is worth remembering that pyres were the traditional way of disposing of the dead in British Isles before Christianity. I get asked about it fairly regularly.

Rosie Inman-Cook
Manager Natural Death Centre and the Association of Natural Burial Grounds

Rob said...

Hey Tony. I enjoyed reading your post. The human rights issue is something to study.

TonyTheProf said...

This apparently - according to Tony Keogh - is a real issue if plots are not dug deep enough, and you are taking about biodegradable material in place of a wooden coffin. It depends who monitors this and ensures the areas where the plots are is deep enough. Perhaps you can post what your practice is in this respect?