It’s a cold, foggy Sunday morning and I’m sitting on a boat with thirty other Indians floating along the river at Kingston upon Thames. We’re not a bunch of tourists on a sight seeing trip, far from it. We’re here to scatter a dear relative’s ashes and see closure on a fortnight of grieving.
As the boat floats along the river, a flock of wild ducks, two majestic swans and members of local rowing club pass by, oblivious to what’s going on aboard. The skipper eventually moors the boat near a small pier and gives the go ahead.
A priest reads aloud a final set of prayers as my cousin releases a white cloth bundle into the cold, still water. His father’s ashes gently pour out and drift away and you can’t help but shed a tear, the floating and eventual sinking of the cloth symbolic of the passing of a great life.
For many Hindus and Sikhs in the UK, it’s traditional for the ashes of dead relatives to be immersed in one of the many holy rivers back home in the motherland. However, more and more Indian families are finding their connection to the subcontinent severed, be it through migration, marriage or family feuds. Inevitably, it has become more common place and acceptable for individuals to perform the last rites for loved ones right here in UK.
Specially designated sites like the ones in Kingston upon Thames, Windsor and Brighton have been created in order to accommodate the growing number of South Asian (and non-Asian) requests. Not surprising considering the thousands of second and third generation Indians born and raised in the UK who never stepped foot on Hindustani soil, despite what the Bollywood films would have you believe.
The disposing of human remains is a sensitive subject. While some Indians may feel the need for their spiritual journey to end in their country of origin, others may not. For many, their country of origin may now be Africa, Australia, North America or Europe.
But what if you are suddenly faced with the death of a loved one who didn’t express their wish on where and how they are to be laid to rest? Is it acceptable to forgo the journey home and arrange for their remains to be dispersed locally? Common sense dictates it’s a personal decision that should be made without outsider interference.
While a fair number of UK Indians may have seen their connection to the home land erode over the years, some, like Davender Ghai, have not. In February 2010 the 71 year old Hindu grandfather from Gosforth, Newcastle upon Tyne, won right to be cremated on a traditional open-air funeral pyre in Britain. His controversial case was reported to have cost him £100,000 (only a small proportion of which was covered by legal aid) and left him ‘virtually penniless’.
Nevertheless, the landmark ruling meant thousands of Hindus, Sikhs and anyone else wanting 'natural cremation' can have their dying wishes legally carried out. As the founder of the Anglo-Asian Friendship Society, Mr Ghai’s tenacity opened the way for building crematoria with a hole in the roof to meet the requirements of the faiths and British law. "I believe a person should live and die according to his own religion," the Uganda-born man told BBC news, despite having lived in the UK since the 1970s.
While some UK citizens may not like the idea of open air cremations taking place in their neighbourhood, the law can no longer prohibit this. Mr Ghai’s historic win means a cultural ritual that dates back some 4,000 years can now be carried out in modern day Britain. Before that the burning of human remains anywhere outside a crematorium was prohibited under the 1902 Cremation Act.
As the saying goes, ‘time and tide wait for no man’. Having been born in London and spent the past thirty seven years visiting the Punjab and other regions, my heart remains Indian even though my residence may not. I’d like to think that when my time comes, my family will be able to split my remains between both my true homelands and make two boat trips instead of one.
Photo credit: Remi Bridot