The religious Indian practice of scattering the ashes of a loved one after cremation may become costlier to follow in Auckland — New Zealand’s largest city and home to the largest group of Indians in the country.
Auckland Council is considering a by-law which, if approved, will require family members to:
- seek council permission before scattering the ashes of their dead family member, and
- pay for such permission.
A general read of the by-law indicates that Auckland Council is trying to rationalise a number of differing by-laws inherited from the legacy councils that preceded the creation of the unitary council in Auckland.
I can understand the need for uniformity. It seems legacy council for former Waitakere region contained provision for scattering of ashes. So did Franklin and Papakura, whereas other regions had varying restrictions.
However there was no consultation with many ethnic bodies, including:
- The Council’s own Pacific and Ethnic Peoples Advisory Panels the Maori Statutory Board
- Ministry of Pacific Island Affairs
- The Office of Ethnic Affairs
- The Auckland Interfaith Council
- The Hindu Council of New Zealand
- The Federation of Islamic Associations and
- The New Zealand Jewish Council as per a statement released by Multicultural New Zealand.
And these are only some of the ethnic bodies in New Zealand.
Was it just rationalization of laws across the Auckland region, or are there any environmental or health concerns arising from the practice of dispersal of ashes? And if there are such safety concerns, are these borne out of the ‘mainstream’ culture’s less-informed opinion?
If the cremation happens at 800 degree Celsius, what is left of human body is pure carbon in the form of ashes. There are no apparent health concerns in other developed countries. And if there are health concerns, then a complete ban on dispersal of ashes will be in order.
Also, putting so many restrictions, including bureaucratic approval, will introduce delay in the dispersal of ashes, something that’s not advisable in Hindu tradition.
Describing the plan as “heavy handed, unnecessary and bureaucratic,” Labour’s Ethnic Affairs spokesperson Phil Goff says there has been insufficient consultation with the public and in particular with the ethnic communities, and that the decision is more likely to create problems than resolve any.
“Families almost always conduct the scattering of their loved ones ashes with care and consideration.
“The last thing we want to impose on grieving families are bureaucratic procedures, long time delays and additional expenses all for the simple duty of scattering the ashes of their loved ones,” says Phil.
Another restriction put by the council is on the number of people allowed to attend the process of placing the casket in the cremator. It again shows lack of awareness of Hindu rituals.
It is customary to have four members of the immediate family to carry the casket in to the cremator, says National List MP Kanwaljit Singh Bakshi who feels they are likely to have direct impact on the Indian community.
“The council bylaw limits that to two.”
“It is also part of the Indian tradition to scatter ashes into a river or sea. The council bylaw further restricts areas where ashes can be scattered.”
“Any decision that has such impact on areas of such cultural sensitivity ought to be made after active consultation with these communities.”
Kanwaljit says he intends to submit to the council to express his personal concerns about the proposed changes.
Phil Goff has written to the mayor of Auckland, Len Brown, asking for the council to think again.
Unfortunately, consultation on the issue is closed, but the council would do well to re-consider its decision.
While I am on the issue of consultation, I won’t put the blame entirely on the government. Numerous studies have shown that migrants, especially those from less developed countries, show apathy towards political activities. This includes voting as well as consultation.
Many ethnic communities, including Indians, are apathetic towards consultation. First generation Indians were not used to being ‘consulted’ extensively by law-makers in their country of birth.
A typical response to consultation in India is: “It’s a futile exercise. Which government has ever listened to people’s voices?” This could be partly true, but it creates a catch-22 situation. Lack of participation in consultation almost creates the environment of apathy on both sides – the government and its people.
So, as much as the onus lies on the council to consult, it is also on us migrants to play an active role in this.
Another critical role is of community leaders who are expected to raise the issue.
Ashes: Maori and Indian views clash
While dispersal of ashes in rivers is a Hindu ritual, such a practice is unacceptable for many Maoris, as was evident during the consultation for the Burial and Cremation Act review last year.
Law Commissioner Dr Wayne Mapp said last year it was clear, for example, scattering ashes in rivers or on the foreshore was culturally unacceptable. “There was already conflict about it in Wellington, where Sikh and Hindu communities wanted to scatter ashes in the Hutt River, the practice finding offence.”
— Vaibhav Gangan is the managing editor of The Global Indian magazine – published since 2004.