Rites of passage: Ont. site promises dedicated space for Sikhs, Hindus to scatter ashes

With the number of cremations rising across Canada, there is increasing demand for areas appropriate for scattering the ashes of loved ones, particularly for groups for whom the placement of ashes is a sacred ritual.

For many Hindus and Sikhs in the Toronto area, fulfilling the obligation to scatter remains in flowing water has often meant either searching for a spot on the shore of Lake Ontario or taking an expensive trip to a sacred site in India.

But a new park near the Ontario Khalsa Darbar Sikh temple in Mississauga promises a dedicated location for mourners to dispose of ashes in accordance with religious practices.

“For a very long time, we didn't have culturally sensitive services for doing this thing, and so for most folks that were Sikh we were looking at big financial barriers and emotional barriers,” Jaspreet Bal, a professor at Humber College and member of the Ontario Khalsa Darbar, told CTV’s Your Morning on Monday.

While the site – named Kiratpur Park after a sacred site in India – is not yet finished, it’s already hosted more than 200 ceremonies in the past eight months. It will include a fountain, a gazebo, recycling bins for cardboard boxes used to transport remains, and appropriate areas for mourners to grieve. But key to the site is direct access to the running water of Etobicoke Creek, which runs along the property.

“For Sikhs, specifically, there's four major rites of passage that are mandated by our code of conduct,” said Bal. “This specific one around when people pass away, we make sure that we're not attached to the body. To that end we cremate and then we return it to the Earth and the best way to do that is to put it into a flowing body of water.”

While disposing of ashes is legal on Crown land, it is generally not permitted on municipal lands in Ontario, and the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority has only recently begun changing its rules to allow disposal in water.

At the same time, cremation rates have been rising in Canada. More than 70 per cent of deaths in Canada were followed by cremation last year, according to the Cremation Association of North America.

“To have these sites means that people can actually complete those final responsibilities with final rites of passage without having to think like getting on a flight and going back to India,” said Bal. “Especially for a lot of folks that were born here in Canada and spent their entire life here, it was a really interesting idea that they would have to go back or have their ashes taken back to a country they’d never been to to immerse them in the water there.”