Rick Benisasia, who’s in the after-death business, is looking to build an empire.
Mr. Benisasia runs a South Asian-focused funeral home on Derry Road in Malton and wants to open a crematorium beside it. The land, money and demand is there, he says.
For more than three years, he’s waited for his rezoning application to be approved by the City of Mississauga. But a new Mississauga bylaw passed in March says new crematoriums must be a minimum of 300 metres from residential properties, due to concerns over the health effects from their emissions.
Since Mr. Benisasia’s business is less than 300 metres from several nearby houses, he won’t be opening that crematorium any time soon.
But the battle isn’t over. He plans to take his case to the Ontario Municipal Board. As part of religious practice, many South Asians cremate their dead – namely Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists. For him, this goes beyond business owner versus city: This is a cultural and religious issue.
“If we have a funeral home that is catering to the needs of that community, but does not have access to their own crematorium services, then it limits their ability to serve the community,” said Pandit Roopnauth Sharma, the priest at Mississauga’s Ram Mandir, the city’s largest Hindu temple.
As Mississauga’s ethnic and religious minority population grows, so too do calls for services that cater to their needs.
Hospitals are bulking up their interpretation services, long-term care homes are creating culturally specific menus and public schools are offering weekend language programs that reflect their demographics. The latest available numbers on religion in the city are from the 2001 census, but data from 2011 showed the language most spoken at home after English was Urdu. Ethnic-origin data from the 2006 census showed the South Asian population was almost the same size as the population that descended from Britain – about 21 per cent. In Malton specifically, the South Asian population was much higher, at 54 per cent.
In keeping with the shift, more Ontarians are choosing cremations over burials. In 2006, 48 per cent of people who died in the province were buried and 52 per cent were cremated, according to Ontario’s ministry of consumer affairs, which oversees the province’s crematoriums. By 2011, it had shifted to 41 per cent burials and 59 per cent cremations.
In a 2009 paper about accommodations for religious and ethnic minorities, Ryerson University professor Sandeep Agrawal wrote that bureaucracy and legislation have a way of conspiring against minority populations who want to perform non-mainstream religious and cultural customs for the deceased.
“Seeking [a] spatial accommodation sometimes challenges the local citizenship. Ethnic groups encounter particularly intense resistance and become subject to intense scrutiny,” he wrote.
Mr. Benisasia’s funeral home has an almost entirely South Asian client base. Its parking lot has space for 250 cars, since South Asian funerals tend to draw large crowds of mourners. The funeral director, Jyoti Johal, speaks English, Punjabi, Hindi, Gujarati and Tamil. And the 325-seat chapel is designed so that Sikhs can take their shoes off and sit on the ground and Hindus can pray before statues of deities.
Last summer, the province passed new legislation that allowed for crematoriums to be built off cemetery sites (which is where they were restricted to before). Mississauga set about creating guidelines for where in the city they could go, which led to the drafting of a new bylaw.
When the city held public consultations last year to gauge public opinion on where crematoriums should be located, a busload of vocal South Asian seniors showed up to state their support for letting them go up in the city near residential developments since it would make them more accessible. But they were outnumbered by opponents from several citizens’ groups who were concerned about the chemicals the crematorium would be releasing through its exhaust, says Bonnie Crombie, the Mississauga city councillor who represents the ward in which Benisasia Funeral Home is located.
“We aren’t opposed to crematoriums,” she says. “We certainly want them to have culturally specific, religious ceremonies that cater to the South Asian community. But they had to understand it had to happen in the right place.”
During a by-election in her ward in 2011, Ms. Crombie said it was a hotly debated topic.
Ms. Crombie “ran on a platform saying they’re going to make sure no crematoriums come here. So of course she has to keep her commitment,” Mr. Benisasia said.
“But if you look … the cemeteries have [crematoriums] and they’re close to homes. So it’s really a politics issue.”
To show she’s in support of their crematorium bid, Ms. Crombie said she has reached out to Mr. Benisasia to find an alternative location for the business – possibly on industrial lands, far away from residential areas. But Mr. Benisasia is set on having it beside his funeral home.
When many potential clients find out they can’t get cremations done onsite at his funeral home, Mr. Benisasia says they head to Meadowvale Cemetery and Crematorium in Brampton or Glen Oaks Memorial Gardens in Oakville, where they can get funeral and cremation services at the same location.
In lieu of crematoriums formally geared to South Asians, the city’s two other crematoriums (who won’t be affected by the new city bylaw since it only applies to new developments) are stepping up to meet demand.
Recognizing the business opportunities in Mississauga’s growing South Asian population, St. John’s Dixie Crematorium has moved well beyond its Baptist Anglican roots – while less than 10 per cent of the cremations they performed were for Hindus and Buddhists when they first opened in the 1990s, those populations now represent about 30 to 40 per cent of their clientele, said general manager Richard Evans.
“We had a small chapel but it would accommodate maybe 50 people. But the Asian community is very close and they were showing up 100 or 200 people,” he said. And so in 2010, he added a 300-seat chapel specifically for those communities. This year, he installed a third cremator to keep up with 1,400 cremations they annually perform and to allow for anticipated volumes in the upcoming decades.
At Assumption Catholic Cemetery and Crematorium, the other crematorium in Mississauga, general manager John Huys says between 50 to 60 per cent of cremations are for non-Catholics.
In his quarter-century as a Hindu priest in Mississauga, Mr. Sharma says he’s seen the city evolve dramatically in response to the practices and desires of religious minorities. In 2009, Mr. Sharma led a lobbying effort to get the province to allow for Ontarians to spread cremation ashes on crown land and waterways.
“When my father passed away, I went to Lake Ontario and looked back to see who was looking and I disposed of [the ashes],” he recalls. Many people at the time were doing the same, feeling as though they needed to be discreet, he said. Passing legislation on the matter was a signal that the government not only tolerated, but accepted the practice.
Mr. Benisasia doesn’t see the need for a by-law at all. As far as he’s concerned, provincial legislation is enough to determine whether a crematorium’s location will affect the surrounding area – the ministry of environment regularly monitors crematoriums.
Even if Mr. Benisasia never opens his crematorium, it doesn’t mean Mississauga will always be without a South Asian-focused one. As Mr. Sharma has witnessed, the voices of consumers can sometimes be louder than those of lobbyists.
“Twenty-five years ago, many funeral homes did not know how to accommodate a Hindu funeral, how to accommodate the rituals,” he said. “Over the years they have come to work that out. It’s a business, so they did what they had to do to receive some of that business.”