There are over 30,000 graves all over the Maltese islands but this notwithstanding there is still a waiting list of people who applied to buy a grave in a government-owned cemetery, John Attard Kingswell, manager health inspector at the Public Health Department said.

Although a demand for private graves still exists, Mr Attard Kingswell said there is no shortage of burial places because the government had enough graves to take more than the average annual number of deaths in Malta and Gozo.

"The government has a sufficient number of graves which are termed as common graves. These are retained for the specific purpose of providing a burial place to anyone who does not own or has a right of burial in a private grave," he said.

The remains of a person buried in a government grave can be transferred to a private grave after two years. Mr Attard Kingswell said this time is required for sanitary reasons and even after two years the Public Health Department could still postpone the transfer if the decomposition is not complete.

Speaking in Parliament last month, Health Minister Louis Deguara said there are 2,492 applicants on a waiting list to buy a grave. He explained that once the Addolorata Cemetery extension was completed graves would be allocated accordingly.

Answering questions by The Times, Mr Attard Kingswell said the price of a grave sold by the government depended on the cost of the land, the cost of construction as well as other factors and could also vary from time to time. The last graves sold by the government were at the Mellieha cemetery and cost Lm725 each, according to a legal notice issued in November last year.

Owning a grave does not mean that problems could not arise and is not a guarantee that a person will definitely be buried there. Mr Attard Kingswell explained that if a grave is not separated in sections, then a year has to pass between one burial and another. However, he said, most private graves have three compartments. The lower compartment is usually used as an ossuary - where the bones are put after the grave is cleaned - but could take up to one coffin. He explained that this compartment is sealed with stone slabs and burials usually take place in the middle compartment, which can take up to two coffins. The second level is also sealed with stone slabs so that the top level can be used if the necessary time frame to open the main compartment has not passed. He said that as long as the section was sealed off, and there were no coffins in the section being opened, a burial could take place at any time.

Graves can be cleaned two years after a burial. During this cleaning the coffin's wood is disposed of and, since skeletal remains take very little space, the number of burials that could take place in that grave is increased. The remains are put in a small box, which is usually supplied by the relatives of the deceased.

Asked whether there were any plans to open a crematorium, Mr Attard Kingswell said this depended on whether any interest was shown by the private sector. There was an application by a private company for the opening of a crematorium made to the Malta Environment and Planning Authority in 2002.

The application is for the crematorium to be built on the site earmarked for the extension of the cemetery. A spokesman for the authority told The Times that Mepa was waiting for the applicant of the crematorium and the government to come to an agreement as to whether the land will be used for the building of a crematorium or the extension of the cemetery. She said failing this the authority would have to make a decision. Apart from this, Mr Attard Kingswell said, the Public Health Department had also received an application for the building of a crematorium last July from a private company. However, he said, details were scanty and information requested by the department had to date not been submitted.

"The Department of Public Health has no objection with respect to the building of a crematorium," he said.

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