Councillors want place where mourners can spread funeral ashes on waterfront

A Toronto councillor wants the city to establish at least one designated ash-scattering place for mourners, after years of conflict between bereaved families and other users of Bluffers Park in Scarborough.

Biodiversity, cultural rituals clash at popular waterfront park in Scarborough

After years of conflicts between mourners and other users of Bluffers Park, Coun. Gary Crawford says it's time that the city established a designated spot where mourners can scatter ashes of their loved ones. (Sue Goodspeed/CBC)

A Toronto councillor wants the city to establish at least one designated ash-scattering place for mourners, after years of conflict between bereaved families and other users of Bluffers Park in Scarborough.

Coun. Gary Crawford, who represents Ward 20, Scarborough Southwest, said faith groups often use Bluffers Park for post-funeral rites, which can anger other park users who see the scattering of funeral ashes as water pollution. His ward includes the Bluffers Park neighbourhood.

"You're looking at flowers — some are fakes, some are real. There is food there. There's the potential for coconuts as part of these processions," he said.

As it stands, city staff are left to clean up what's left behind.

"What we really need to do is look at how do you balance out the sensitivities of allowing people to have a proper cultural burial, but in site specific areas. I think that's what the city will be looking at next."

Memorial benches dedicated to those whose ashes have been scattered at Pickering's designated waterfront funeral rite space, have been installed by the local Hindu temple. (Mike Smee/CBC)

It's currently illegal to scatter ashes on municipally-owned land in Toronto without city permission. The province does allow the bereaved to scatter ashes over any unoccupied crown lands.

However, the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (TRCA) acknowledged in a report to its board last week that "there is a need to reduce user conflict along the Lake Ontario waterfront and in other park locations where recreationalists come into contact with the bereaved as they undertake the dispersal of funeral ashes."

TRCA added: "This has been of particular concern at the boat launch areas at Bluffers Park in Toronto."

Basil Punit, a trustee of the Devi Mandir Hindu Temple in Pickering, stands on the Lake Ontario beach where ashes are often scattered, legally. (Sue Goodspeed/CBC)

At least two other municipalities, Pickering and Mississauga, have approved designated ash-scattering spots on local waterways.

Last summer, the Sikh community, with the help of the City of Mississauga and TRCA, opened a private park on Etobicoke Creek that includes a spot where the bereaved can disperse ashes and other offerings.

To the east, in Pickering, the Devi Mandir Hindu Temple tried for years to convince the city to help establish a designated ash-scattering spot, according to temple trustee Basil Punit. Finally, about 10 years ago, the city and the temple reached an agreement. The Temple "adopted" a tiny, municipally-owned open space on Lake Ontario in southeast Pickering.

Mourners of any faith can hold rituals there, including ones that involve the dispersal of ashes and offerings like fruit, flowers, coconuts and coins, but the temple is responsible for ensuring that anything left behind is cleared away.

A signpost denoting the local Hindu temple stands by the ash-scattering place that the City of Pickering and the temple established about 10 years ago. The spot can be used by anyone, regardless of religious afiliation. (Sue Goodspeed/CBC)

Adjacent to a popular waterfront trail, the space is a busy spot, Punit says, but so far there have been no major problems — and he says rituals are held there daily.

"Before that, people were coming out without permission and doing rituals themselves and that became a problem," Punit said. "It's better to have a designated spot. No major conflicts."

Coun. James Pasternak, who represents Ward 10, York Centre, and sits on the board of TRCA, says he understands the concerns of environmentalists. Pasternak is also vice chair of the city committee that oversees parks.

"When you throw foreign substances in large volumes, it affects the biodiversity, it affects the quality of the water, and that's the issue for the TRCA."

Coconuts, dead flowers and other debris left behind by mourners on some Lake Ontario waterfront spaces, notably Bluffers Park, have caused friction between mourners and other park users, according to TRCA and local councillors. (Sue Goodspeed/CBC)

But he also says that if other councillors agree, he would support a study aimed at finding an appropriate scattering place in the city.

"If it's working in other municipalities, then it's worth trying out here," he says.

Coun. James Pasternak, vice chair of the committee that oversees parks, says the city should look into the feasibility of designating at least one spot for the dispersal of ashes in water. The Don River runs through his ward in north Toronto. (Mike Smee/CBC)