Waking the Dead: the Return of the Funeral Pyre

Although illegal since the 1930s a giant, beautiful funeral pyre for a British Sikh man was built and burnt this week, bringing an ancient and almost forgotten burial rite back to a country that once, like much of the rest of Europe, burnt its dead.

An intriguing story has emerged in Northumberland, England this week with the extensive media coverage of an open-air funeral pyre for a Sikh man which was carried out an a secret location. That said it can’t have been that secret as a BBC camera crew managed to film the whole thing.
Of course, this being England we’re speaking of, it didn’t take long for a bureaucrat to come screaming out of the woodwork about violation of protocols and laws. The row began in earnest when the Department for Constitutional Affairs (who the hell are they?) went into jobsworth mode and stated that the ceremony was ‘unlawful’. From the BBC:

‘The funeral pyre of Rajpal Mehat, 31, took place in a remote field on Wednesday after Northumbria Police gave permission on “humanitarian grounds”.
But the Department for Constitutional Affairs said the ceremony was “unlawful” and police later admitted the service “may” have been illegal.
Open-air funeral pyres have been illegal in the UK since 1930.’

Although the ceremony involved here was a Sikh one, the islands of Britain and her neighbour Ireland are countries which once belonged to a greater European culture, one which was not so adverse to cremation burials. And I’m not referring to dank, Victorian cremation centres like the Golders Green crematorium (home of Bram Stoker’s ashes) in London, but rather to a period of history much further back than that.
Often referred to as ‘Late Bronze Age urn culture’, it was a time typified by cremation burials. Also known as ‘Urnfield culture’, the name comes from the habit of cremating the dead and placing their ashes in urns which were then buried in fields. From Wikipedia:

‘Early Bronze Age Britons buried their dead beneath earth mounds known as barrows, often with a beaker alongside the body. Later in the period, cremation was adopted as a burial practice with cemeteries of urns containing cremated individuals appearing in the archaeological record.’

But why?
Now, you might be asking yourself what the problem is. Perhaps the Department for Constitutional Affairs objected due to environmental reasons? Health and safety? The smell of burning remains? All cogent points, but a quick bit of research would seem to quickly dispel such concerns. From an article in January 2006:

‘437,000 wooden coffins are wastefully burnt each year in the UK and crematoria are amongst the highest emitters of poisonous mercury into our atmosphere. “Conversely, pyres are an organic and inherently more natural means of disposal. ”
Indeed, emissions from Cumbrian Foot and Mouth cattle pyres, even whilst burning 400 tonnes at a time, were comparable to levels commonly found in any British city.’

So, it’s enviromentally friendly. It’s away from the stifling influence of the church. It’s deeply emotional and spiritually cleansing for the bereaved. It’s a focal point for mourners. It’s a celebration. It beats the shit out of taped musak, plastic flowers, a dodgy, groaning lift-shaft to nowhere and a tacky, over-priced urn. What’s not to like?


Urnfield Culture – from Wikipedia
Ancient Britain – from wikipedia
From the BBC (includes video of the pyre)
Spoilheap – everything you ever wanted to know about British burial
The campaign for British funeral pyres

Waking the Dead:
Full list of all articles in the Waking the Dead series

Damien DeBarra was born in the late 20th century and grew up in Dublin, Ireland. He now lives in London, England where he shares a house with four laptops, three bikes and a large collection of chairs.

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