It seems fair enough. Death treats us all equally; it pays no heed to our wealth, our status, our beliefs. So when a coroner has to decide in what order to release bodies for burial, she may well think it reasonable to adopt what has become known as the cab-rank principle: to put it crudely, a sort of first-come, first-served approach.
This is indeed what Mary Hassell, the senior coroner for inner north London, has decided to do. She has alighted on a policy of treating everyone equally, regardless of their religious belief. Under Jewish and Islamic law, bodies must be buried on the day of death or as soon as possible afterwards; yet Hassell will not prioritise any death for religious reasons. In doing so, she has exposed a faultline in British society, and finds herself facing criticism from Jeremy Corbyn, Sadiq Khan, the chief rabbi, the Muslim Council of Britain and the chief coroner. And, for what it’s worth, me.
The problem is that Hassell’s view betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of religion. And as large parts of our society, for better or worse, grow more detached from religion, this misunderstanding risks becoming first prevalent, and then pernicious. The mistake so many people make is to consider religions as things that are believed in, essentially as competing sets of precepts and strictures, held primarily in the intellect of the believer. They may argue that, at most, religious expression should be confined to a household or a place of worship. But this is to make a profound and troubling category error, because religions are not thought: they are lived.
To speak in broad terms, religions are far more about practice and custom than they are about theology or ideology. When viewed like this, the refusal to bury people in accordance with their religious beliefs is equivalent to denying their freedom to practise their religion, even after death. The harm in Hassell’s position is exacerbated by the nature of this particular custom, coming as it does at the end of life, and at a time of such intense difficulty for the families involved.
The noble idea of religious freedom has been damaged of late by its employment in defence of misogyny and homophobia. But there are good reasons why it is enshrined in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The freedom to manifest “religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance”, in public or private, is there at least in part because of the close bonds between religious custom and cultural and community identity. As religious belief declines in Britain, as fewer of us align ourselves with a religious tradition or know someone who does, this is something we risk forgetting. Ancient traditions increasingly appear to us not as rich expressions of humanity and spirituality, but as behaviour that is arcane, weird or ludicrous. Little wonder, then, that we end up with the sixth-form japery of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Losing our feel for religion entails losing our ability to understand multicultural Britain.
Loudly though some secularists demand it, religion can never be confined to the private sphere, any more than politics can be. There are, of course, times when a particular religious practice may conflict with fundamental liberal values, and those may be legitimate topics for debate. But when it comes to who gets buried first, I’ll happily give up my place in the queue for someone who cares more deeply about it than I do – and for whom how they are buried is an expression of how they lived.
• Peter Ormerod is a journalist with a particular interest in religion, culture and gender