Sky Burial – Is It Legal In The UK?
I have recently replied to a couple of respondents with a personal desire for sky burial. They contacted me because I have written two previous posts on the subject. The first was on setting a standard, the second on its usage in the Bronze Age. There is no doubt that this process was used and perhaps it stretched back as far as 8000 BC. For certain, this process was the only way these people could have functioned in those times. However, it is no longer part of our culture and so we need pose the question, sky burial – is it legal in the UK?
The Ministry of Justice
The MOJ has, sort of, clarified the legal position in the UK. As might be anticipated, it is opaque. However, that is no surprise because the entire burial and cremation legislation in the UK is a mess. For example, some bodies have already been put through a process called Resomation. This dissolving of the body in water involves no flame so is not cremation. Consequently, that process is entirely outside the existing legislation. In addition, much of the law is only applicable to local authorities and not to any private company or charity. All the current private and charitable natural burial providers operate in a legal vacuum. However, nobody has been threatened with any legal action.
Making it legal
The MOJ have stated that alternative methods of disposal are outside the scope of the existing legislation. These alternatives are processes that do not involve burial or the burning of human remains. Further, they suggest that providers of such alternatives need to comply with any other relevant legislation or regulation. What that alternative legislation or regulation actually is can be challenging. It is assumed to be falling foul of common law by preventing the lawful and decent burial of a dead body. This is “triable by indictment” and punishable up to a maximum of life imprisonment, an unlimited fine or both. However, the solution might be to define what we mean by sky burial.
Sky burial definition
The naked body is placed on a raised platform where birds remove the flesh. To prevent bones being carried off by birds, a grid or netting could be placed over the body. Historically, sky burial is viewed as a complete process. However, this is not correct because the mass of bones remain. If we inter those bones or store them in an ossuary, we could define the process as a form of burial. It would, in effect, be burial after exposure to birds. That would remove the possibility of being accused of preventing the lawful and decent burial of the body. However, it would need to be well screened to avoid offending public decency. The site would only be accessed with the permission of the site owner.
This process of interring just the bones is not as unusual as it might first appear. Ann and I visited a Catholic church on the Rhine a few years ago. The bodies were buried in time limited graves purely to allow the flesh to decompose in the soil. As soon as the time expired, the bones were removed and placed in an ossuary beneath the church. The mass of bleached bones was open to view. The exhumed graves were then sold for further burials.
Feeding which birds
Sea eagles are currently being introduced on the Isle of Wight. These birds are, so my research shows, quite idle if given a carrion source. They will feed and return and go little further. Also, in 2020, a single Lammergeier (bearded vulture) moved from the French Alps to the Peak District for some weeks. This species is capable of consuming large bones. It can also drop them from a height to break into smaller pieces. I believe these birds routinely fed on human bodies until the Romans invaded and changed the culture. However, maybe the small birds, those fat loving blue tits, would enjoy the feast most of all. The one in my photo is eyeing up some nice fat!
Because we can assume that in prehistory the birds knew where bodies were placed, they consequently became more numerous. They will have consumed a body within a few days. Different species would consume specific parts of the body. Today, the local birds would not be familiar with this process. That said, a site could bait the sky towers with carrion for some time prior to placing a body. This is similar to how some sites have attracted red kites. Ravens are also making a comeback and would use a sky tower. Nonetheless, the mass of birds using sky towers in prehistory would take some time to develop in Britain. The environmental capital in this would have promotional kudos. As a response to the climate crisis, what could be better?
Sky burial – is it legal in the UK?
Sadly, I am not aware of anybody researching or proposing to offer sky burial. In reality, sky burial and a new process of composting bodies would complement natural burial sites in the right locations. Then, assuming sky burial is their first choice, they could fall back on the others in certain circumstances. For instance, if the deceased had to accept painkillers (poisonous to birds) prior to death. In such cases, composting or natural burial could then be chosen. Finding a suitable natural burial site with an owner willing to do sky burial is perhaps the first objective. The MOJ don’t take new proposals too seriously until there is an potential provider behind the proposal. There is also the challenge of local planning permission, which I assume will be required.
Those who want sky burial will need to work together to open a site. I hate to say it but sky burial is seen as pagan. Consequently, anybody with a religion may oppose it. Also, anyone who desires a sky burial needs the support of their executor. This is because you cannot dictate what happens to your body after death. The executor, in effect, can choose to do whatever they wish. Those who have a pagan executor, who loves birds, will have no problem.
Feeding the birds may be problematic for the birds. In India there has been a 99.9% decline in some of the populations of vultures due to diclofenac. The drug is commonly used and a single dosage is fatal to the birds within 36 hours (this was caused by it’s use in cows). It’s a horrible painful death from the crystallisation of the organs. While we don’t have vultures there are thoughts that the same effect may be true for kites and eagles and it’s a drug used by lots of humans.
While putting a net over a body to help stop larger parts being carried away, incidents of kites dropping fingers and smaller parts in India have caused a few problems and a few surprises for people walking under them.
Looking at the bigger picture of the drugs problem, we really don’t know what all the other drugs might cause problems for birds and there are no guarantees that like diclofenac other drugs that are acceptable for humans to use may turn out to be fatal to birds. We know already this is true and that diclofenac is just one of a growing list.
We are no longer our ancient ancestors who lived a much simpler life not taking modern painkillers, non steroidal anti-inflammatory and other drugs that might kill the birds.
If we really want to tread lightly, there might be better ways.
Thanks Adam. You are correct and I am aware of the diclofenac issue. The people who contact me over sky burial anticipate dying without any form of medication. Yes, I am aware that seems unlikely. Treading lightly is why I introduced natural burial in 1990. Resomation and other new alternatives to cremation have their issues and I doubt they will become mainstream. Even the new body composting processes are struggling. They cannot compost all bones, teeth and nails. With all this going on, cremation numbers continue to rise. Natural burial is still the only environmental option, yet little more than 7% of the total.
There are so many scenario were drugs might slip through. The risk is just too high. We are now seeing diclofenac poisonings happening in Europe where it was said the controls wouldn’t allow it to happen.
Interestingly I’m not sure what the mutes and castings of a vulture would look like after eating a human. The mutes might contain bone fragments and the same with the castings. At a guess you would find hair and bone in the castings and bone in the mutes. Not sure that study has ever been done or will now ever be done. In any case not everything is eaten in a tower of silence and the Tibetan version involves cutting the body and then smashing up the bones with rocks that are left by the vultures to try and make them eatable.
The other part that people forget is the response to threat and fear in vultures. Once a vulture has eaten, should it then be threatened it will regurgitate the contents of its crop. This then might be eaten by anything else or just left.
Maybe there should be a carbon offset charged for anything other than a natural burial. Make green the cheaper alternative.
Thanks for the comments guys. I have toyed with the idea of a sky burial, wishing my body to be a useful meal for a bird or animal. But I would hate to be the death of an animal through the medications I take. Probably better to have my ashes scattered where they will help to re-nourish the earth.
Hi Cathy, Putting your ashes to nourish the earth worries me! It suggests cremation and that will undoubtedly damage the earth. Better to choose natural burial and really help the environment. Cremation is incineration.