UK to give religious exemptions for cremation during coronavirus pandemic

Muslim MP and Jewish groups worked together to advance amendment over bill which had caused concern that cremation could be used in contravention of religious beliefs and traditions

The Parliament of the United Kingdom (photo credit: REUTERS)
The Parliament of the United Kingdom
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The UK government has agreed to amend legislation that may have allowed state authorities to use cremation even against the express wishes of the deceased and their families.
Jewish and Muslim groups had expressed deep concern about such legislation since it would contravene deeply held religious beliefs and practices, and an amendment was advanced by Muslim MP Naz Shah.
Cremation is strongly prohibited by Jewish law and is extremely taboo in Jewish society.
Following a political and public campaign against the proposed legislation, the government adopted its own amendment on the issue, accepting the need to adhere to the specific wishes of different faiths regarding cremation.
The terms of the initial draft UK bill were part of a larger piece of legislation aimed at tackling the public health emergency caused by the coronavirus pandemic in the country, with the clauses on disposal of the dead laid out with the expectation that the number of deaths will increase significantly.
Under the section dealing with state authority in relation to transportation, storage and disposal of dead bodies, the legislation stated that “Personal choice for body disposal will be respected as far as possible.”
It stated, however, that “where there is no suitable alternative (for example if safe storage limits were likely to be breached and out of area alternatives were not available), the power to direct may be used to direct whether a body is buried or cremated.”
The bill noted that this clause would need to “disapply” a section of earlier legislation which specifically prohibits cremation against the wishes of the deceased.
Following publication of the draft bill, Board of Deputies president Marie van der Zyl called on the government to respect religious traditions on cremation and burial.
"For those that do succumb to this pandemic, it is important that they know that they will be laid to rest in accordance with their wishes,” she said, noting that two members of the Jewish community died over the weekend from coronavirus. 
After the decision was made to adopt an amendment to the bill, van der Zyl said that the Board of Deputies "would like to extend our deep and sincere thanks to the Government for working with us to amend this legislation, to protect the final wishes and religious freedoms of the deceased. There could be few things more sacred.”
Van der Zyl specifically thanked Shah for her work, as well as Health Secretary Matt Hancock and Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick.
Shah took to her Facebook page on Sunday to welcome the amendment, saying she was “relieved that the Government has listened to what we've said about religious burials for Muslim and Jewish people.”