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The Rite Thing

The Rite Thing

December 15, 2011

Home or away? Where should an NRI’s ashes be scattered?

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 


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  • vaibhavGhevde
    27.12.11 10:15 AM
    Its not about opinions for me. The article is based on facts and in the end the author expresses her will. And I genuinely liked the article but I don't feel like giving an opinion, you got a problem with that. If yes, then I could not care less.
  • Rajpriya
    21.12.11 07:21 AM

    I know of many who go with the motto " Yes Sir, No Sir, at the end of the year increment Sir.

    That's the perfect way to please bosses and hang on to a boring job that never challenges one to come out with one's best and better by differing.

    I really don't say you are that but its about opinions.
  • Rajpriya
    21.12.11 06:54 AM
    Read my comment above comment starting @vaibhavGhevde.

  • Rajpriya
    21.12.11 06:52 AM
    @ I respect your opinion. When you say you just liked reading it and didn't feel like giving an opinion it is an opinion that's yours. Then others did like to say something and that's their opinion.

    The advantage with an online forum is that you can discuss an article with its author or other readers' opinions. Of course, if this article appeared in a newspaper, magazine or elsewhere, where you won't be able to discuss anything but you just read it and put it a away.

    I did not know that the Ashes of a dear relative could be dispersed according to one's own cultural and religious beliefs thousands of miles away in a country of a different culture and religious belief.

    In fact in Germany burials are more common than cremations. In the four decades I have lived in a village I have yet to see a cremation. To have my ashes dispersed in the Ganges would be a tall and an expensive order.

    There are authors who are careful in saying what they say in a manner so as not to attract opposing opinions or views. Yet there are others who run the risk of triggering an enormous amount for and against opinions.

    Online forums therefore afford anyone to have an opinion different that of an author. Of course all authors like to have positive opinions.

    If I went on saying, "I liked it", "It was an excellent article" or the similar
    to everything that I read, even though deep down in my heart ( some don't think I have one) I differ, then I would not know the purpose of an online forum.

    Simply put “Es wurde Sehr langweilig”. Too boring. There is no interaction.
  • vaibhavGhevde
    20.12.11 10:39 PM
    I don't feel like giving am opinion about the article. Just liked reading it.
  • Rajpriya
    20.12.11 05:12 PM

    I would say that's a great idea. In fact when I Google searched I found this link that suggest some of best places in India. There are many countries, Malaysia being one of them offering expats great areas to live.

    The following criteria as guidelines for development of expat communities in places considered as best in India.

    • Good location with interesting local activities and places to explore.
    • Good infrastructure, including medical facilities. A significant retiree population is a plus. This eliminates some of the more exotic locations.
    • Not excessively crowded. This rules out most of the bigger cities in India.
    • Safe, with a cosmopolitan outlook and open to outsiders. A sizable expatriate population is a plus.
    • If they had: a Shopping Mall, a Swimming pool, Walking paths, Meeting points a Pub or Club like environments, Sports facilities and a Gym are some of many facilities that could help senior citizens being kept active and fit.
  • Sonia Kamboj
    Sonia Kamboj
    20.12.11 11:49 AM
    Indian has diversified over years now and all NRI's when they visit now can feel the difference. The focus now is shifting to do something for senior citizens, give them a lifestyle living keeping their social, physical and emotional needs in mind. Such communities as we know worldwide are called "Senior Citizen Communities". Its a concept which is very well acknowledged, respected and accepted abroad, but in India it beginning to get noticed. Many such companies after a lot of research have started planning for developing such communities which would offer the best of living keeping the age of senior's in mind, it would certainly offer international standards with an Indian touch. Just wanted to know the comments of my fellow NRI's of what they think on this.....
  • Jas
    16.12.11 04:40 PM
    Thank you all for your kind comments. Having attended Dev Anand's funeral in London last week it certainly made me think more about this issue. The great actor and his family felt his body should not be moved and cremated in the UK where he passed away, but that his ashes be immersed in the Godavari river in the holy city of Nashik after a memorial at Mehboob studios in Mumbai. Yet again this shows how much of a subjective, personal issue death and burial rites is.
    15.12.11 11:00 PM
    Nice and moving article JASPREET,

    Our motherland will always be in our heart regardless, where ever we live. The colour of our passport means nothing in our final days. This is true for most NRI born in India or abroad. The home of NRI is where his heart is. One must always respect that, for those who wants to return home for the final journey.

  • Writerzblock
    15.12.11 07:25 PM
    A moving piece Jaspreet. While I completely understand the tug of war that goes on in your heart, I speak strictly for myself when I say that I would rather just opt for an electric cremation and do away with the whole practise of spreading ashes. What is more important is the love for both motherlands.
  • Joseph James
    Joseph James
    15.12.11 04:24 PM
    Your beautifully written post reminded me of Rupert Brook's famous lines, "If I should die, think only this of me/That there's some corner of a foreign field/That is forever England."
  • Deepak
    15.12.11 01:33 PM
    wow, in the last paragraph i can understand your deep feel or longing, there is no place like house and house is a place where heart wants to reside.
    good post :)

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