BARROW CHAMPIONS MULTICULTURAL RELATIONS
On October 8th 2004, the Leicester Mercury published an
article which started an international ball rolling: Barrow
and the River Soar suddenly appeared on the map. Since then,
there have been national newspapers, Radio 4 and television
telling the world that the traditional ceremony of the Sprinkling
of Ashes now takes place with official approval just up-river
of Barrow. By the time you read this, BBC World News may have
filmed a local Hindu or Sikh family conducting the ceremony
from one of Barrow Boating's boats.
With no information available for the public, it is understandable
that there have been a number of anxious enquiries and complaints:
how can the already congested area at the bottom of Mill Lane
possibly cope with a huge influx of extra traffic- even buses?
Where will they all park? What damage will be done to boats
by the coconuts, caskets, garments and plastic toys that are
scattered into the river along with the ashes? What happens
when the river floods and washes human remains over the banks?
Will a day's tranquil fishing be ruined? Why weren't the people
of Barrow consulted before this 'licence' was granted?
Barrow seems to have been given a golden opportunity to promote
multicultural relations and it would be a terrible pity if
there wasn't confident community support just because of a
lack of accurate information and control. So Barrow Voice
has done some delving to find out more about this fascinating
story.We have been in touch with the Environment Agency, British
Waterways and Barrow Boating as well as an Asian Funeral company
and the Leicester Interfaith Council. We hope to inform our
readers with some of the facts that we have unearthed.
First, the ceremony itself. Most of us are familiar with
the Christian tradition of cremation followed by the scattering
of the ashes, usually quietly and privately. Most commonly
the ashes are scattered in the crematorium grounds or on a
family grave or by a favourite tree or in a river. Amongst
Hindu and Sikh families, the family must scatter the ashes
in the river so that the spirit of the loved one is set free
as the ashes are swept to the sea. Only then can mourning
cease.The river has traditionally meant the sacred Ganges
in India but for many, this has been impossible and so there
has been a growing demand to use UK rivers.
Any scattering of human ashes on rivers is regulated by the
Environment Agency working with British Waterways. Before
about two years ago, the Environment Agency routinely refused
permission apart from in tidal waters, on the grounds that
so much water is extracted for drinking from our rivers that
there could be a pollution implication. Consequently, if Ashes
Ceremonies were carried out, it was without regulation and
without permission. Local traditional practice often includes
throwing coconuts, fruits, flowers and caskets into the water
with the ashes.A Barrow Voice reader who has lived in Barrow
all his life told us 'as kids, we always knew where to go
to find coconuts. We used to walk along the river to find
one of the backwaters where there was hardly any water movement.
Sometimes I could come back with two or three.' A representative
of British Waterways agreed that this practice.unregulated.
is still going on.
However, as Jeff Dolby, from the Environment Agency says,'we
were receiving so many requests from Hindu and Sikh faith
groups that it was becoming an issue.We decided to be more
pragmatic and actually look at the sites. In the last two
years, we have concluded that there are many stretches of
river up and down the country where water pollution simply
isn't a problem. Our concern has been to devise criteria that
are acceptable to the general public.We would really like
to encourage debate to create an acceptable code of conduct.
One important aspect that we knew couldn't be acceptable to
anyone was the issue of the 'peripheral' scattering - the
flowers, the coconuts and so on.We consulted the Asian Funeral
Service and several Hindu and Sikh temples to find out if
this was a vital part of the ceremony. It seems that it isn't
and we were able to agree that only the ashes should be put
into the water.'
So when Frank Reeves, owner of Barrow Boating, approached
the Agency about six months ago, Jeff came out to Barrow to
see the proposed site for himself. Barrow Boating fulfils
all the current criteria admirably: the public has access
to the river from this site; there is parking for fourteen
cars of boating customers; there are toilets including disabled
toilets; the chosen site, well beyond Meadow Farm Marina,
where the Wreake joins the Soar, is far from habitation; fishermen
are unlikely to walk so far up-stream and there is a good
water flow. Perhaps even more importantly, Frank is well aware
of the need to control what is put into the water: 'I work
closely with Asian funeral services so families know exactly
what is permitted and what is not.The only thing to be put
into the water is a portion of the ashes. Being entirely mineral,
they either dissolve or get dispersed into the water.Their
effect is trivial. Occasionally the bag they came in blows
into the river. I go back and retrieve it after the ceremony
is over so I don't disturb the family. Nowadays, the objects
that you find in rivers come from irresponsible tipping of
waste, particularly garden rubbish.'
When Frank was asked about the possibility that the Ashes
Ceremony might cause serious traffic congestion in the area,
he replied 'On average, there are between two and three a
week.There hasn't been any increase since all the publicity
although I have had lots of enquiries from the media. Each
ceremony usually involves one boat - that's up to twelve people.
It's rare that there are more than three cars.The ceremonies
take place in the day time and mostly at weekends: generally
not at times when the pub attracts lots of extra customers.These
are quiet, dignified, family affairs amongst grieving relatives.
Frank is proud to be doing his bit for multicultural relations.
'To provide this service following acceptable guidelines is
an excellent way of improving relations between people of
different faiths. If people once come to realise what joy
and happiness the ceremony brings to a bereaved family, then
understanding is generated.And, of course, this river facility
is open to all. The river is a peaceful and soothing place
to be and it is increasingly common for river users of all
races and creeds to request it as the site for their own ashes.'
We all have the opportunity to engage in the debate opened
up by the Environment Agency. By December you can have your
say by logging on to www.environmentagency. gov.uk .You can
read an excellent document 'Funeral Practices and the Environment',
make suggestions and express your opinions. Perhaps we should
suggest that local debate would be a healthy part of identifying
suitable stretches of river.
Our researches have pointed overwhelmingly to the need for
regulation. Far from creating a problem, regulating river
use at sites all over the country will allow people to use
the sites with confidence and in the knowledge of an acceptable
code of conduct.The philosophy of the Environment Agency is
summarised in their statement: 'We aim to respond positively
to those members of the community who wish to scatter ashes
on water, but we need to ensure that they do not harm the
environment or upset other river users. We expect that our
policy will contribute to a healthier environment and better
quality of life by:
- protecting the environment and river users from any harm
or upset caused by spreading ashes;
- taking account of beliefs and concerns of diverse groups
- providing guidance on funeral practices that everyone
can understand and that people will comply with.
The Environment Agency has clearly some way to go: the Leicester
funeral service we contacted was apparently unaware of the
'agreement' to restrict the Ashes Ceremony to just ashes but
was fully aware of the list of licensed boating companies.
Similarly, there seems to have been little dialogue at a local
level between the Environment Agency and other statutory bodies.At
the moment, noone is accountable and no-one is monitoring
what actually happens.There is no mechanism to ask boating
firms to consult with angling clubs; no guidelines for funeral
directors and priests. Let us hope that Barrow is the place
that stimulates dialogue between all interested parties so
assisting the Environment Agency in achieving its admirable