My Lords, I commend the Government for bringing forward this important piece of legislation. We are indeed facing challenging times. The coronavirus has caused widespread disruption and tragedy. Families have been torn apart and businesses forced to close.
I was in self-isolation but felt that it was important to contribute today as this Bill raises important questions about the treatment of the deceased. The permission granted to local authorities to cremate the deceased caused anxiety within the Jewish and Muslim communities. I therefore broadly welcome the Government’s decision to amend the Bill to provide safeguards against this practice. I pay tribute to members of the Muslim community, who have all worked together on this issue to face the problems in a true spirit of solidarity.?
There should be respect for the souls of our dead. Our collective human dignity and preservation should not be compromised and defeated by this pandemic. It is important to emphasise that Islam strictly forbids cremation of the deceased in any circumstances. There are verses in the Holy Koran which state that the body must be buried. We regard what is written in the Holy Koran as the words of God, and we need to abide by them. There is a great deal of disquiet and concern about the provisions of the Bill relating to this subject.
I have had discussions with, and received correspondence from, leaders of mosques, burial grounds and Muslim organisations, and scholars, who all recognise the practical challenges of burials due to the coronavirus pandemic. This has caused deaths in the community to become a major talking point, as a number of Muslims have underlying health issues including heart and lung conditions and diabetes.
Although I welcome the Government’s concession, I fear that it may not go far enough, as there is a chance that cremations could occur in exceptional circumstances. I would therefore be grateful if my noble friend the Minister could inform your Lordships’ House as to whether Her Majesty’s Government will give further guarantees to ensure that cremations do not take place against the will of the deceased’s loved ones in any circumstances. These guarantees are absolutely essential.
The Muslim community is keen to work with local authorities to find solutions to the challenges arising from the coronavirus pandemic. A fatwa has been issued by the Ulama Council of the UK Islamic Mission, which has declared that the practices of Ghusl and Kafan have been suspended in the present climate. Ghusl means washing the body and Kafan means shrouding the body in accordance with Islamic principles. The deceased’s body will therefore be buried as it is received in a body bag. Furthermore, the burial prayers will be performed in a graveyard from a convenient distance at the time of the burial or offered at the grave after the burial has taken place.
Today, I was told that there is a shortage of body bags in mortuaries. That needs to be addressed. Mosques and burial grounds are providing protective clothing to their members who will deal with burials. The number of friends and relatives of the deceased at the funeral is being kept to a minimum. The community also acknowledges that there may be problems regarding burials in the light of a shortage of land and is willing to work with authorities to find solutions. A number of proposals have been made, including: burying bodies one on top of the other; burial in the garden of the deceased person, if this is possible; and burial in mass graves. In relation to the latter, local authorities will need to provide the appropriate land for this to happen. Today, I spoke to the head of a major Muslim charity who is willing to provide support.
The coronavirus pandemic has raised many challenges for our global and local communities. It is vital that we strike a balance between addressing the concerns of our communities and enforcing this important legislation.
Lord Bethell the Minister in his winding up speech included the following paragraph:
I am sincerely grateful for the important contributions made by my noble friend Lord Sheikh and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, who asked what steps we have taken to ensure that there are no forced cremations for religious followers. This is a very delicate issue, and stakeholder engagement has been moving and persuasive. I reassure noble Lords that we are engaging with faith communities to make sure that contingency measures are designed with due consideration for different practices around managing the deceased.
During the Ministers reply Lord Sheikh intervened and said as follows:
Is my noble friend able to give me the guarantees that the community is looking for with regard to burial and cremation? They are looking for assurances and guarantees.
The Minister Lord Bethell answered as follows:
My noble friend Lord Sheikh spoke very movingly. The amendment agreed to in the Commons is, I believe, an extremely important step in the right direction. A huge amount of discretion is given to local councils to make arrangements with the communities that they know best. This is a set of decision-making that is best made at a local level, and for that reason I would prefer to leave it in the hands of the amendment and in the hands of the local councils. However, I want to be clear that faith communities will be involved in the drawing up of statutory guidance that will be issued before any direction affecting burial or cremation is issued. It is of the utmost importance during this difficult time that we continue to respect people of faith and their beliefs.