COMMUNITY and religious leaders have praised George Osborne for launching a review to ensure crematorium facilities in Britain are appropriate for Hindus and Sikhs. Announced in last week’s budget, the consultation follows representations to the chancellor from British Asians, who are concerned that current facilities are often too small and not equipped to meet their needs.
“In the past year, a number of British Hindus and Sikhs have also raised with me their concerns about cremation facilities for their communities,” Osbourne told parliament last Wednesday. “They have told me often the facilities are not large enough for everyone from the community to pay their respects and don’t always pay enough regard to cultural sensitivities. “We want to know more about concerns people from all faiths and none have about these facilities, so we can do more to ensure everybody can mark the passing of their loved ones appropriately.”
Eastern Eye spoke to funeral directors, politicians and religious leaders about the chancellor’s announcement. Indian spiritual leader His Holiness (HH) Pujya Swami Chidanand Saraswatiji of Parmarth Niketan in Rishikesh, north India, who has been working to ensure crematoria in the UK are more respectful to Asian traditions, said it was important one’s “final journey” was done with dignity. “It is important that in their final journey, the departed soul is treated with dignity in accordance with our traditions and rites,” he told Eastern Eye. “We have to create the right atmosphere for the last rites to be performed and ensure that loved ones are also looked after in a proper manner – that their concerns for the departed soul’s next journey turns from fear to faith. “The Indian community is an asset wherever they go and make a huge contribution to countries like Britain. It is good that Britain is giving back to the community. I welcome this review from the chancellor and look forward to seeing its conclusions.”
Jitesh Gadhia, senior managing director of the Blackstone Group and a member of the advisory board of the City Hindu Network, said the review shows the increasing influence of British Indians. “The fact that this relatively niche issue has risen to the chancellor’s inbox is testimony to the increasing political importance of British Indians, who played a decisive role in the outcome of the recent general election.” He added that the crematorium review was a “critical test” for the Hindu community and they must work together and give a united response.
There are around 300 crematoria in the UK, with sites based in west London widely used by Hindus and Sikhs. Lord Navnit Dholakia, the deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords, said the consultation on making these places more accommodating was a “step in the right direction”. “There are a number of issues connected with crematorium facilities which need to be considered – analysis of local authority practices about facilities in their area and how they meet the need of different communities; how cultural sensitivities of our diverse communities are being met and in larger conurbations, could land be earmarked to provide crematorium facilities appropriate to meet the needs identified. “A full discussion with temples, gurdwaras and other places of worships should be held and their views should be taken into account.”
Anil Bhanot, managing director of Hindu Council UK, said the government review was “most welcome”. “Our surveys (in 2008) had revealed that there is no appetite among Hindus for open-air funerals, but rather greater provisions were needed to accommodate a more ritualistic service at what is the most sacred bereavement time for a family, the antam-sanskaar (last rites). “Certainly larger chapels with basic was hing and kitchen facilities attached are needed in the crematoria infrastructure,” Bhanot added.
Funeral directors said crematoria were trying to adapt to different cultures, but “huge sums of money” would be needed to make them more appropriate to the needs of Hindus. Chandu Tailor, director of Chandu Tailor & Sons funeral company, told Eastern Eye that the solution wasn’t as simple as building a crematorium that catered only to Asians. “I’ve been there and done it and after 25 years, the local community went against me and the Muslims benefitted instead by getting a burial site. “In a year, I end up travelling to 20 different crematoria. Even if I had one facility of my own – no matter how dedicated or how special I could make the place – they (clients) are not all going to come rushing to me,” Tailor said.
“They will not travel any further than they need to and there are a lot of factors – price competition, for one. If you sat down with an accountant and say you want to cremate all the Hindus here and just say around 50 per cent and below came to the same place, it is not viable to run the place. “No individual or no company is standing up to say, ‘we will throw £3-£4 million in this place to make it more accommodating’,” he added.
Sanjay Shah, the owner of Indian Funeral Directors, conducts 400 funerals in a year, with clients within the M25 area. He told Eastern Eye that accommodating funeral arrangements specifically for a community was “complex”. “To build or to have facilities for larger groups of people, you are talking of a huge area in London. Where can you accommodate a large crematorium to accommodate these people? This is a very complex issue. “It’s good that people are thinking about it, but they do not realise the money required (for it) and the land required in order to fulfil the Hindu and Sikhs’ need for a large crematorium.” He added: “The people who are actually involved in extension of the current facilities of the current crematoriums, have found a majority of them are listed buildings. There is no facility for extending those crematoria, and in those areas, if you are thinking of building a brand new crematorium, there is no land.
“Also the monies required to build the crematorium – they don’t have that much either. And the maintenance required to facilitate all this.” Shah said he usually double books the crematorium for Hindu and Sikh families because he is sure more people will turn up than the expected number. For a half-hour slot, families can end up paying from £500 to £850, with up to to 400 mourners attending. Shah said staff at the crematoria need to learn the requirements of a cultural system as to how a Hindu or a Sikh funeral works.
“Being a specialist Indian Hindu funeral director, the majority of the crematoria I go to, I tell the management as to what our requirements are and how we should be accommodating Hindu families. Currently all the crematoria always agree to exactly what we require and how it is to be done. “The majority of the crematoriums have a 30-minute time slot. But whenever a need arises for more time for a Hindu family, I will always request a double slot rather than a single slot.” “Also, car parking space is a big problem. There is never car sharing when we go to a Hindu or Sikh funeral. Everybody wants to go in their own cars and everybody is fighting for car park spaces. If the chancellor can give more land to crematoriums for car parking facilities, that will be fantastic.”
The consultation will be led by the Department for Communities and Local Government. It is intended to take into account the views of all faiths and members of the community.