Traditionally in Malta, burying the dead was sustainable. We had a few plots dotted around Malta, but the primary one is the Our Lady of Sorrows ‘Addolorata’ cemetery in Paola built in 1869.

This cemetery, designed by Emanuel Galizia (1830-1906), is doted by amazing neo-Gothic structures and has been called one of the most beautiful cemeteries in the world. The other small cemeteries include the four Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemeteries in Pietà (Ta’ Braxia, again designed by Galizia), Pembroke, Mtarfa and Kalkara, four small plague cemeteries in the localities of Mdina, Wied Għammieq, limits of Kalkara and Mqabba, a World War I cemetery in Kalkara and another two cemeteries in Żejtun. Another Galizia masterpiece is the Turkish cemetery next to the Addolorata in Paola.

But with our urban lifestyles and density of populations, such practice of burying our dead is becoming unsustainable. Although Mepa protects the land, what is unsustainable is the number of people in Malta.

We have already reached overcapacity in the Paola cemetery, which has over 15,538 graves out of a total of 22,293 graves overall on the island. It is also becoming toxic. Regardless of the recent report by the cemetery’s new manager Brian Bonnici on the poor and unhygienic work conditions, abuse and neglect, illegal selling of plots and gross machinations, the other type of toxicity is chemical.

In 2003 Mary Woodsen reported that we are turning cemeteries into toxic landfills. In the US, together with burying the deceased, we will be burying 827,060 gallons of embalming fluid – including formaldehyde; 180,544,000 pounds of steel; 5,400,000 pounds of copper and bronze; and 30 million board feet of hardwoods every year. We are polluting the living through our death and leaving behind a toxic legacy.

We have already reached overcapacity in the Paola cemetery, which has over 15,538 graves out of a total of 22,293 graves overall on the island

Which is why there is now talk of green burials. Green burials are organic burials, with a sustainable mission – a philosophy that aims to have the burial site remain as natural as possible without added chemicals, metals or gases. Green burials also allow for the natural decomposition of the body. Bodies are buried without preservatives, in bio-degradable caskets, shroud or blanket. No embalming fluid, concrete vaults or non-degradable metals are used.

Except for dignitaries who are still preserved and mummified for prosperity, most traditional religions prescribed that the body is buried in a natural environment to promote contact with the elements and the environment. Although in most countries there are laws prohibiting this, there is a new movement across Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the US and the UK promoting green burials. This is more in line with the UN Conference on the Environment and Development Environmental Programme Agenda 21.

Green burials are more than just choosing from a variety of biodegradable coffins made from recycled materials. It is about the preparation of the body and the footprint that is left behind. In a 2007 survey by the AARP, 21 per cent of Americans older than 50 said they would prefer an eco-friendly end-of-life ritual. And the end-of-life business is responding.

Although cremation has been a greener alternative and uses far fewer resources than almost any other option of dealing with the remains, it pumps dioxins, hydrochloric acid, sulphur dioxide and carbon dioxide into the air. Mercury is also emitted when a person with dental amalgam fillings is cremated as well as heavy metals from tattoos.

A new alternative to cremation is resomation – bio-cremation – which emits no carbon in the air. Resomation involves placing the body with water and an alkaline (potassium hydroxide) into a stainless steel tank and heating it for several hours until the remains melt. While some of the residue can be placed in an urn, the rest is flushed through the local sewage system. This technique has attracted the unpleasant name of ‘toilet burial’.

For more exotic burial practices we have to go to the Far East and look at the sky burial practised by Buddhists in Tibet. After carefully preparing the body and making strategic incisions, the body is left on a ledge on a mountaintop, exposed to the weather and to foraging animals – especially predatory birds. The body remains part of the cycle of life. Although sky burials are not feasible in most urban settings, and especially in Malta as the birds will become target practice, the business of dying is looking at alternative ways to leave less toxicity in the ground.

Re-examining our practice of resomation so that we leave less of a toxic legacy is perhaps our final responsibility in life. Although a crematorium is not yet available in Malta, cremation overseas is being offered by some enterprising funeral services. There is nothing in the Catholic religion to stop cremation or resomation. Resomation might be the most viable option available for our growing population, and nowadays, it is the greenest alternative. When the Health Minister Joseph Cassar confirmed that the real cost of a new grave was €8,000, it might be the only way Maltese people can afford to meet their maker.

Mario Garrett was born in Malta and is currently a professor of gerontology at San Diego State University in California, US.

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