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Open air pyres
History & Politics
In 1883 when Welshman Dr William Price (above) healer, druid and naturist, fathered a child with his housekeeper, nearly sixty years his junior, nobody was surprised. He had already formed a reputation as a flamboyant eccentric, endorsing free love and vegetarinisim and refusing to treat those who smoked.
Often seen stalking the hillsides naked in his youth, by the time his son - defiantly named Iesu Grist (Jesus Christ) - was born to him in his eighties, he had taken to wearing a scarlet waistcoat and fox-skin headpiece and parading through town carrying a blazing torch and druidical crescent moon.
It was the death of the aforementioned son when he was barely one year old that was to seal the doctorʼs place in history. A heartbroken Dr Price took the boyʼs body to a hilltop, on a Sunday and in full view of the nearby chapel, and attempted to cremate him in paraffin.
A furious crowd dragged the body from the flames, calling it a “vicious act of blasphemy” and rioted, nearly killing the doctor in the process. His eloquent and theatrical defence and subsequent acquittal captured the imagination of the nation and paved the way for the legalisation of cremation through the Cremation Act of 1902.
A grateful, though nervous Woking crematorium finally fired up its burners, installed but never lit due to the ambiguity of the law, and the age of burning our dead began. The Doctorʼs own subsequent triumphant hilltop immolation was witnessed by a crowd of twenty thousand and celebrated in song, story and on some very collectable postcards.
Open air pyres
Fast forward a hundred and twenty odd years and Mr Davender Ghai, a British Hindu and founder of The Anglo-Asian Friendship Society returned to our courts seeking solidarity with Dr Price and the relegalisation of the right to be cremated in Britain in accordance with his religious custom, on an open air pyre.
In February 2010, Mr Ghai won his battle at the Court of Appeal, which ruled that he had a right to be cremated in accordance with his beliefs. Mr Ghaiʼs legal challenge was on religious grounds, but we at the NDC were proud to stand beside him representing everyone who would choose a natural cremation, whatever their personal beliefs.
Throughout the nearly two decades during we have operated a funeral helpline to the public, we have fielded calls, sometimes at the rate of one a week, asking whether this is legal and possible.
We have always felt it should be on environmental, social and spiritual grounds and in the past we have stated that an open air cremation fits our idea of the perfect funeral ceremony.
Natural Cremation, Fuel and the Environment
For thousands of years, sustainable fuel was sourced from managed woodland. The very word ‘wood’ differentiates this product from timber; wood being small poles and rods used in the production of hurdles for example and fuel wood, which is burnt in its raw state or processed into charcoal. Timber being the taller standard trees grown for building materials, shipping and furniture. So for millennia, our ancestors knew how to maximise the production of this renewable carbon neutral resource.
The combination of the Second World War and our modern reliance on fossil fuels has sadly resulted in the majority of British woodland being unused and its management being financially unviable, so a huge percentage of it is currently in a dilapidated and worthless state, used in many cases solely by hunts and shoots.
Walk into most broadleaf woodland today and you will be surrounded by dead and dying trees and rotting coppice stools. This might be great for fungi but our other woodland fauna and flora, which have developed to live within our managed woodlands or which have survived from the ancient ‘wild wood’ for thousands of years, are losing a foothold, as the habitat they evolved to occupy becomes rarer.
The wood needed for funeral pyres could provide an answer to some of this neglect. Coppiced hazel under Oak, which is a very common planting mix in many woods throughout the UK, could supply a clean, fast and hot burning energy source. This would include all not so straight ‘seconds’ that have no resale value or use in hurdle making for example. The money paid for this fuel could provide the financial input necessary to rescue some of our heritage woodland and as a consequence many types of wildlife.
One problem faced by natural cremation is the issue of mercury emissions. When teeth containing amalgam fillings are burnt, mercury vapour is released. Attempts are made to deal with this at conventional gas cremators with filters in the chimneys, however these are not 100% effective and as a consequence 19% of airborne mercury is attributed to crematoria. Even with better filtration, this level is set to rise as the number of people dying with their own teeth intact increases. The only answer to the problem of no filtration posed by pyres is to remove either the fillings or the teeth containing them. If this is the only problem faced by the dying or bereaved who wish to have this type of cremation, it is a small price to pay.
Take part in our survey
We, the NDC, support the campaign to re legalise outdoor funeral pyres here in the UK. We feel there are strong historical precedences for this in our ancestral past, and we believe it would work environmentally, socially and spiritually, regardless of religious belief or ethnic background.
Our full arguments in favour of this are available here on the website, and in the current edition of The Natural Death Handbook.
Do you agree with us?