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Scattering ashes

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Picture this:

A group people gather on the riverbank to hold a brief ceremony.

There are tears, hugs and a few words before one of them opens a container to scatter the cremated remains of a deceased loved one into the flowing river current.

There are a few more words. The mourners then leave.

Then another group arrives. The same scenario repeats itself.

The secluded spot where the ceremonies take place is appropriately marked that ashes can be scattered in the river. There's a guardrail to allow mourners get close to the riverbank without risking falling into the water below, and an adjacent area where they can gather before and after the ceremony.

Such a spot hasn't been chosen yet, but that's the long-term goal of the city's Hindu community, NDP MLA Mohinder Saran says.

Saran says it's an issue of religious rights, particularly among Hindus whose religion mandates cremation.

In a recent resolution put forward in the legislature, Saran said cremation is controlled under the province's Cemeteries Act, but there is no mechanism to guide what can be done with the ashes. 

Saran said many jurisdictions, including Alberta, Newfoundland and Labrador and Ontario, allow cremated remains to be scattered on waterways and Crown land.

Saran asked for all-party support to acknowledge the significance of the religious custom of scattering cremated remains and to consider adopting a policy similar to Ontario's. It would be the first step in the province acknowledging families are not breaking any law when scattering ashes.

Ontario has several options:

  • Ashes can be buried or scattered in a registered cemetery.
  • Ashes can be placed in a columbarium, called a niche. A columbarium is an above-ground structure that houses a number of niches.
  • Ashes can be scattered on private property with the consent of the land owner.
  • A cemetery, crematorium, funeral home or transfer service can scatter the cremated remains on a family's behalf.
  • Cremated remains can be scattered on unoccupied government-owned Crown lands or Crown lands covered by water, including provincial parks and conservation reserves and the Great Lakes without government consent.
  • Ashes can be scattered on municipally-owned lands, but municipal by-laws must be checked first.

Saran's resolution did not pass, but it is still being studied by government to see how to best to accommodate all Manitobans who wish to lawfully scatter the cremains of a loved one.

Manitoba's Public Utilities Board administers the Cemeteries Act, but to date has not dealt with the specific issue as raised by Saran.

The PUB only says on an online FAQ:

Q: Can I scatter cremated remains myself?
A: Yes, but only at a location with the owner's permission and discretely.

The board did deal with the issue, in part, in 2006 and found that the increasing practice of the scattering of cremated human remains was not adequately addressed in legislation.

"That said, the board also concludes that the (Cemeteries) Act is outdated, and has failed to stay current with the changing preferences of consumers with respect to cremations and the scattering of ashes. The board will conclude that regardless of the definitional deficiency as to what is meant by "human remains" and "ashes", ashes resulting from cremation are, from a general understanding perspective, the remains of deceased humans. Where and how they are scattered or otherwise disposed are matters of importance to families and society.

"In short, the Cemeteries Act neither provides regulatory oversight over the scattering of ashes, nor assures perpetual care of the sites where ashes have been spread, other than, and by extension, when the site is a cemetery."

In past discussions on the matter, a number of statutes have been singled out as potentially treating cremated human remains as harmful to the environment.

The Canada Water Act defines waste as:

(a) any substance that, if added to any water, would degrade or alter or form part of a process of degradation or alteration of the quality of that water to an extent that is detrimental to their use by man or by any animal, fish or plant that is useful to man, and;

(b) any water that contains a substance in such a quantity or concentration, or that has been so treated, processed or changed, by heat or other means, from a natural state that it would, if added to any other water, degrade or alter or form part of a process of degradation or alteration of the quality of that water.

The federal Fisheries Act is similar. It defines "deleterious substance" as:

-any substance that, if added to water, makes the water deleterious to fish or fish habitat or any water containing a substance in such quantity or concentration or has been changed by heat or other means, that if added to water makes that water deleterious to fish or fish habitat. Currently there are regulations that authorize the deposit of pulp and paper liquid effluent, metal mining liquid effluent, petroleum liquid effluent, and effluents from other industrial sectors.

Manitoba's Litter Regulation under The Environment Act and Winnipeg's Anti-Litter By-law both prohibit the distribution of "ashes", but the definition of "ashes" in both laws does not include human ashes.

There is also some discussion that cremated ashes are rich in calcium and phosphorus that can affect alkalinity and act as a fertilizer, which could restrict in some circumstances where ashes are spread. More information is on the website Scattering Ashes.  

Taken altogether, the law is woefully unclear on the spreading of cremated human remains.

What Saran is trying to do is bring more clarity to an issue hundreds if not thousands of Manitobans will participate in in their lifetimes.

And rightfully so.

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About Larry Kusch and Bruce Owen

Larry Kusch has been a journalist for 30 years, the last 20 with the Winnipeg Free Press. His is one of the newspaper's two legislative bureau reporters.

Raised on a Saskatchewan farm, he received an honours journalism degree from Carleton University in 1975.

At the Free Press, Larry has also worked as a general assignment reporter, business reporter, copy editor and assistant city editor.

Bruce Owen joined the Winnipeg Free Press in 1990 after four years working in other media.

He's worked in a number of positions at the Freep, including pet columnist, assistant city editor and police reporter. Right now he takes up space at the Manitoba legislature.

Bruce is one of five reporters who won a National Newspaper Award for the paper’s coverage of the 1997 Flood of the Century. He's also the recipient of the 1996 Volunteer Centre of Winnipeg Media Golden Hand Award and the 1995 Canadian Federation of Humane Societies Media Commendation Award.

In a past life Bruce worked at YMCA-YWCA Camp Stephens. He has a blog where he and others write about camp and the people who worked and played there.

You can also find Bruce on Twitter where he posts and retweets all sorts of stuff.

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