When a friend lost his child to a car accident, Prakash Venkataraman was one of the few family friends enlisted to help with funeral arrangements. As the funeral progressed, he found another obstacle causing grief: they had nowhere to scatter the ashes for the boy’s final rites.
“[The issue is] people are doing it quietly…You don’t need to have any guilt or fear when you do the rituals,” Venkataraman said. “[The] initiative is to make sure [it] is allowed so nobody needs to have that fear and [can] do the rituals peacefully.”
Since then, Venkataraman has advocated for the establishment of a designated area for scattering ashes on the Grand River. He took his request to the Grand River Conservation Authority and was told their jurisdiction was monitoring the flow of the water and he had better take his request to the municipalities. Then, he presented it to all 38 municipalities along the river.
“So basically, all levels of government washed their hands [of responsibility and are] saying, ‘it is not our jurisdiction’. So I was thinking, you know, if that is the case, I’m going to put a stake [in it],” Venkataraman said.
While people are allowed to scatter ashes Crown lands and waters in Ontario, none of the explicitly permitted bodies of water coincide within Waterloo Region. As immigrant populations grow, the need for such a space grows as well. Even now, many South Asian people were unable to complete their traditions surrounding funerals without significant feelings of guilt, as if they were committing a crime.
“I got like hundreds of calls since this initiative has taken [off], thanking and appreciating and saying…’you’re right, because for the last 20 years or 40 years whatever death happened in our family or in the community, this is what we do. [We] just want to make sure nobody sees us, you know, nobody [is] going to call us out’,” he said.
“It’s not a crime, for crying out loud! This is a ritual we are doing so we should not feel the fear, we should not have any guilt or whatsoever, we need to do that from the heart. That’s what the deceased person deserved.”
Ajmer Mandur, secretary at the Golden Triangle Sikh Association and Waterloo Region resident since the 1980s, has watched the South Asian community grow from the 100s to the 1000s in the region.
While many people would save the ashes of their loved ones for long periods until they could go back to the homeland to scatter them in rivers, this was not a feasible option for all. Travel is not cheap and a family’s financial situation could delay their trip. However, it also does not make sense for people that are a part of this community, who have built their lives in the region, to be forced to have their remains transported to a foreign place. This is their home as well.
Jaspal Bal, a volunteer with the Ontario Khalsa Darbar committee, also shared the memory of his sister’s funeral in Mississauga. Bal played a role in helping set up a memorial place called Kiratpur Park where the Etobicoke Creek flows through the Ontario Khalsa Darbar grounds. They worked with the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (TRCA) and the space will be open to people of all faith backgrounds. Although it is not yet built, the site has seen the final rites of hundreds of people in the last few months.
“All those memories come back [when I’m there]. Even though we’re living in this rat race, materialistic world…we know [that space] is where our sister’s resting place is. So it means a lot,” he said.
“If that service was not available… my sister’s ashes would have gone to India, or as a family we would have sneaked in middle of the night to Credit River or [stood] on some bridge and quickly looked around, ‘oh nobody’s there okay let’s just throw’. Now, there we took our time or we sat down, we laughed, we cried…It was our private moment. It was our place, our Gurudwara,” Bal said.
While Sikh funerals are minimalist, other faiths have more rituals and different traditions. Hindu traditions, for example, include many more artefacts being immersed in the water, such as flowers.
There has been some resistance from the community to scattering ashes in the Grand River, including some concern on the environmental impact they may have. Kamal Bhardwaj, managing funeral director and partner of the Kitchener Funeral Home and Crematorium, said ashes are among the least harmful substances to enter the water. They are simply the carbon left after a body is cremated and pose little environmental risk and crematoriums are also regulated by the Ministry of Environment.
“That’s what that is: our actual bones going back to the environment. The question that you have is: do you consider that pollution? Remember the Ministry of Environment has already approved these kinds of things,” Bhardwaj said. “I’m more concerned with garbage like the boxes they can carry or the containers they bring in that’s left around, it’s not the ash.”
In Pickering, the city and the mourners worked together to keep the river clean as there were also concerns about erosion unrelated to the ashes. Bhardwaj donated $20,000 to help clean the river. He says the donation allowed the city to clean up. They are currently working to establish land where the spreading of ashes can take place.
”Once you designate an area and people understand that, then there’s going to be a responsibility to make sure that you put the garbage where it needs to go,” Bhardwaj said.
Mandur, however, is largely unconcerned about the resistance. He said there will always be people resistant to change, but change will happen nonetheless.
“You will see some resistance but [to] the overall average person who lives here, it won’t make any any difference…when these things happen, there’s always going to be opposition, and I think the relationship overall will not change much. But you will see some people will make a comment one way or the other,” he said.
Venkataraman has received a little success from his advocacy. Last month, Cambridge City Council approved a portion of Parklawn Cemetery for scattering ashes.
“That’s good, but … the tradition is the scattering of ashes [needs] to happen in a water body, it is not in the land, it is in the water body. So even though they are recommending something in a cemetery. Yes, that’s a great initiative, but not everybody [is] going to use that. So, whether they allocate it or not, it will continue in [the] Grand River.” Venkataraman said.
“The City of Cambridge is not the owner of the Grand River and it does not have the authority or jurisdiction to permit or prohibit the request to scatter cremated remains in the Grand River,” Michael Hausser, director of operations at the City of Cambridge, stated in the Agenda for the Apr. 13, 2021 city council meeting.
Having faced disappointment from the municipalities along the river, Venkataraman has now approached the Six Nations of the Grand River.
“This is their land, and anything we do, we need to have the blessings to make sure [that] it is inclusive, and that they are respected, and given the deal. You know consideration in anything and everything like we do…It is a no brainer. This is an initiative because birth and death happens in every living being,” Venkataraman said.
The councillors from the Six Nations were unable to comment and Chief Mark Hill was unavailable for an interview.