Newcastle Hindu healer reignites fight for funeral pyres five years on

Babaji Davender Ghai fought for years to legalise open-air cremations and, five years on from a landmark court ruling, his vision is in full sight

Baba Davender Kumar Ghai, Founding President of the Anglo Asian Friendship Society in Newcastle
Baba Davender Kumar Ghai, Founding President of the Anglo Asian Friendship Society in Newcastle

Babaji Davender Ghai is a man who knows what he wants, and how to get it.

The Hindu healer spent years battling complex legal systems and almost went bankrupt fighting for what he believes in.

And at the end of those four, difficult years, on Wednesday, February 10, 2010 he got his wish as open-air cremations became legal.

It was a Court of Appeal ruling that changed the way the British public looked at cremation and tore up the law book.

It meant, for the first time in history, there was nothing stopping people cremating their loved ones in a funeral pyre - said to be essential to the Hindu and Sikh belief in reincarnation.

Baba Davender Kumar Ghai
Baba Davender Kumar Ghai

Pyres are now legal, as long as the cremation is conducted in an enclosed building away from the public’s gaze and abides by environmental regulations.

But shortly after the ruling, the vision of the Newcastle-based Anglo Asian Friendship Society president hit a stumbling block.

The arduous battle caused Mr Ghai ill health, resulting in a minor stroke, and his hard work almost evaporated into thin air.

But now, almost five years on, the 76-year-old is resurrecting his dream of giving people the send off they want.

Speaking from his bungalow in Gosforth, Mr Ghai said: “We, as a society, are offering people the chance to stick to their beliefs and have an open-air cremation; a funeral pyre.

Baba Davender Kumar Ghai, Founding President of the Anglo Asian Friendship Society in Newcastle
Baba Davender Kumar Ghai, Founding President of the Anglo Asian Friendship Society in Newcastle

“We will do this as a charity, for free. A service that Hindus and Sikhs deserve to have if they so wish.

“After we won the fight I got too ill to carry on my work. Now, I have been healed back to full health and am pressing on with what all our hard work earned us the right to do.”

Mr Ghai started the court battle after holding an open-air funeral for Rajpal Mehat in a Northumberland field in 2006.

He was not charged by police at the time as it was decided that, while it was an offence, it was not in the public interest to prosecute anyone.

He has lived in Britain since leaving Kenya in 1958 and, over the years, he has received several plaudits for helping to promote peace and race relations.

Baba Davender Kumar Ghai
Baba Davender Kumar Ghai

In 2007, he was given an Amnesty International Lifetime Achievement Award and was appointed as a Middle East Peace Initiative Ambassador for Peace.

He also holds a 2006 UNESCO Peace Gold Medal and is on the International Human Rights Commission’s roll of honour.

After winning his case to hold funeral pyres in Britain, Mr Ghai remarked that judges had “breathed new life into an old man’s dreams”.

“I always maintained that I wanted to clarify the law, not disobey or disrespect it,” he said.

Mr Ghai also weighed in on the debate that people can’t afford a ‘proper’ burial, as raised in Parliament.

Baba Davender Kumar Ghai, Founding President of the Anglo Asian Friendship Society in Newcastle
Baba Davender Kumar Ghai, Founding President of the Anglo Asian Friendship Society in Newcastle

He said: “People are coming to us because they can’t afford an alternative.

“The rich can but the poor are being alienated. People should be able to have the funeral they want and something that matches their belief, no matter how much money they have.”

His comments follow those of Labour’s South Shields MP Emma Lewell-Buck, who said in Parliament in December that mourners wishing to avoid what some see as the stigma and shame of a “pauper’s funeral”, face average private costs of £3,551, which rises to as much as £7,000 in some areas.

She claimed that some would rather bury a loved one in the back garden than risk relying on the state for aid.

Ms Lewell-Buck said: “It means people who want to arrange a funeral must agree costs before they know if they qualify for help.

Baba Davender Kumar Ghai, Founding President of the Anglo Asian Friendship Society in Newcastle
Baba Davender Kumar Ghai, Founding President of the Anglo Asian Friendship Society in Newcastle

“This is worrying when 50% of claims are rejected – about 30,000 a year. Applications are lengthy and confusing, for someone newly bereaved. They can take 17 days.”

But Mr Ghai says this is something he has known for years, another benefit in his fight to legalise open-air cremations.

“These are natural and something the Anglo Asian Friendship Society is offering to do,” said Mr Ghai. “I fought for years to make them legal but bad health stopped my work after that.

“Now though I am ready to push on and help those who need it.”

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