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.