The first ever article I wrote for the then brand new Malta Independent on Sunday more than 20 years ago was about the crying need for cremation services on a small island slowly but surely being turned into one massive cemetery. We are still without a crematorium, though there is the comforting feeling that, today, more and more people agree that the burial situation has since become untenable.
However, the news that the sprawling city of the dead that the Addolorata Cemetery has become, is soon to come under private management and, incredibly, to be extended by almost 3,000 new graves, shows that the problem will stay with us for a long time yet.
The privatisation of our biggest cemetery will make no difference to the departed, of course, unless we are going to have pop-up adverts and electronic billboards disturbing the peace and serenity of their final resting place. But for the living, it could yet be another way of being fleeced of more euros. From past experience, there should be no doubt that privatisation will mean that burial and the up-keep of graves, for those who have this unenviable job, will become instantly more expensive. So far, every single privatisation project carried out for either ideological or practical purposes or both has resulted in higher costs but not necessarily better services. The gas distribution liberalisation, park-and-ride and yacht berthing facilities, among so many others, have demonstrated that.
I cannot see the Addolorata Cemetery suddenly becoming all-electronic, with graves having stainless steel shutters that open and close rhythmically like the futuristic gadgets functioning inside some ballistic missile site in a James Bond movie. The spooky business of having a national cemetery run by a private company could be fun only if the crematorium proposal, rightly part of the government-sponsored deal, ever comes to fruition.
For one can still detect a hesitant official approach to the general idea of cremation, possibly on long obsolete religious grounds, and the winning bidder for the Addolorata management contract could find it easier to just forget all about it and concentrate on the provision of more and more space for traditional burials.
To think that there are already 15,538 graves, of which 14,329 are privately owned, and 1,209 common ones, is already a veritable feast to the eye of the entrepreneur who eventually clinches the deal. The contract will, in fact, give the bidder the choice of issuing a call for the construction and management of a crematorium. Money could be made there – in more ways than one – when and if they ever get round to doing it, but the accent will be on the thousands of new graves they could sell and then play the right “music” for their upkeep.
Now that’s an idea: they could let you listen to the buried person’s favourite piece of music while you busily clean the grave and gently place flowers on its shiny marble. All for a fee, of course.
These profit-making ideas could then spread to other private – mostly Church-owned – cemeteries in Malta and Gozo which, like the Addolorata, have also been growing and gradually pulling whole towns and villages into a stranglehold. The price of buying a new grave has increased there too, and in some cases, like Nadur in Gozo, despite their expansion being opposed by farmers whose lands and water sources are threatened by pollution and other offensive cemetery yields.
Malta is just too small for this unsavoury process of ever-expanding cemeteries. Vast areas of land are taken up when it could be used for sensible urban development or, better still, environmental embellishment. It makes no sense, for example, to keep several British Forces cemeteries on the islands when a single cemetery could easily hold the remains of all those buried in them.
When Dom Mintoff once mooted the idea during his long tenure in office, all hell (no pun intended) broke loose, particularly in the British media, which quickly and predictably interpreted it as some sort of vile anti-British act, which it certainly was not.
No one in his right state of mind would carry out such grim tasks without making sure of according the respect and showing the solemnity due to those buried in the so-called “English” cemeteries – soldiers, sailors and airmen, their families and living descendants. Such “land reclamation” projects have, after all, taken place in several much bigger countries, the UK included, with all the dignity required.
At a time when people are rightly feeling frustrated at watching precious arable land and centuries-old public and private gardens being lost to development, one fervently hopes that the privatisation of the Addolorata Cemetery will not simply be another way of keeping party-financing amigos happy with this new opportunity to make a profit out of the burial business. Could the Addolorata be the Smart City of the Dead, I wonder?
The fact that all this privatisation scramble is happening when it is estimated that there are, in Malta and Gozo, well over 70,000 vacant residential units, is clear confirmation that where the private sector is concerned, the urge to develop and to exploit is bigger than their common sense. It also does not augur well for clients of the spooky trade they are being enticed into by the authorities.
The demand for more graves is just too big to ignore and as long as people do not refuse to die, this lucrative new opportunity will also be too good to be ignored. At this rate, it seems highly unlikely that we will see the cremation option being taken – at least in the foreseeable future – let alone witness a replay of this scene from an amusing Jerry Dennis sketch:
He: Yes, love?
She: I think I’d like to be cremated.
He: OK love – get your coat on.