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Thursday, 29 November 2012
Page: 14057

Ms OWENS (Parramatta) (11:05): I was recently approached by Surinder Singh, a member of the Sikh community in my electorate, who raised an issue relevant to the carrying out of the sacred death rituals of Sikhs, Hindus and Buddhists, particularly in relation to the disposal of ashes after cremation. I spoke to several members in my community who affirmed that there are concerns that need to be addressed. With approximately 15 per cent of my electorate made up of people who identify with these religions, I feel it is important to recognise their death rituals, respect them and set their minds at ease that they will be able to carry out their rituals within the laws of the country.

In these religions, at the death of a loved one, thousands of years of tradition require a body be cremated and released into free-flowing water, such as a river, which moves towards the ocean. The death rituals across these religions are diverse and vary in detail, but a common aspect of their cremation ceremonies emphasises the immortality of the soul over the body. An important theme we must consider is how to preserve the cultural customs of our diverse population in Australia.

Currently in the Sydney area there is only one designated place for the release of ashes, at the Georges River. It is known as Satyam Ghat and it has been allocated by Liverpool Council as a disposal point for ashes. Devotees can conduct ceremonies there as long as the items they cast into the river are biodegradable, including flowers and the mesh bags that the ashes are carried in. This is also in line with advice I received from New South Wales Health. Satyam Ghat is just a cemented spot where ceremonies can be performed and ashes released into the water. There are no adornments or identifying features that mark this place as a final resting place, and nor is this required.

Unfortunately, there are aspects of this site which do not meet the requirements of some customs, specifically the fact that practitioners have to release the ashes on the banks of the river rather than further out where the water moves freely. For many that seek a special place, a trip to Satyam Ghat is not possible because of their geographic location. Many Indian Australians also opt to send the ashes for disposal back to India, leading to unnecessary cost. For others, the location for disposal is only significant in that it meets the requirement of water flowing into the ocean. The actual place where the ashes are released is not visited again. The reality for many who wish to uphold these customs is that they make arrangements such as hiring a water taxi and taking a small number of people out towards the heads in the harbour and releasing the ashes there. I am told by the relevant authorities that the disposal of ashes into the ocean is quite legal, yet my community tells me that even as they release the ashes they fear they will be found to be doing the wrong thing, adding additional stress and tainting what should be a special moment for families.

The Environment Protection Authority of New South Wales has advised me that they are sensitive to cultural practices and do not believe that regulatory controls are necessary or that the disposal of ashes has any environmental impact. They suggest that religious organisations and temples develop simple guidelines to bring peace of mind to the mourners and to protect the environment, and I am looking forward to working with my community on doing just that. The guidelines might include things such as: the conditions under which the release of ashes should take place—for example, in estuarine areas which are well flushed or in fast-flowing waters; the conditions when release of ashes should not take place—for example, in periods of low flow or in tributaries that are not well flushed; and the need to avoid use of non-biodegradable matter which could adversely impact on marine life, including litter such as plastic containers or bags and wreaths using plastic or metals.

The EPA also supports the establishment of designated sites in consultation with councils. Ideally these would be located in areas that are quiet, where prayers and ceremonies can be performed in peace. On advice from Surinder Singh, the construction might be as simple as a jetty which allows easy access away from the river bank towards the running water or even a boat ramp that allows for a boat to enter into the channel. They also suggest that they might rotate the use of designated sites to avoid overuse. There is already an awareness in the communities that I have spoken to that as more and more people dispose of the ashes of their loved ones there may be a need to monitor rates and locations. The temples I have spoken to are prepared to cooperate to ensure a sustainable practice that gives peace of mind to the community and to the mourners. There is an awareness that there may be permanent or temporary restrictions on access to some locations for a range of reasons that may include water flow at various times of the year.

Funeral services carry both spiritual and cultural significance and stress the hope for rebirth in these religions. The disposal of the ashes is one of the last of many rituals after death, and it would be good to be able to see it done in an open way in our community. I urge local authorities and communities to work together to develop guidelines and locate appropriate sites, and I look forward to working with the local Sikh, Hindi and Buddhist communities in finding a space for these important rituals.