It’s to the eternal shame of this graveyard junkie that I’ve been travelling to the beautiful and tiny Mediterranean island of Malta for about ten years and only just got round to visiting Addolorata Cemetery.
It’s not all my fault, the site itself is located at a baffling and permanently busy traffic junction and when travelling past it over the years on the way to the island’s capital of Valletta I hadn’t been able to figure out exactly how to get into the place, but this time I was determined, and so I set out on a baking hot Maltese summer day to visit this imposing cemetery.
You have to take your life in your hands crossing the road to get there, but Addolorata Cemetery is worth it. Completed in 1869, cemetery architect Emmanuel Luigi Galizia was greatly inspired by the new cemeteries springing up across Northern Europe, and in particular in London, and Addolorata (or Our Lady of Sorrows) defies its sun-soaked location to match the Gothic splendour of its English counterparts.
Malta is a devoutly Catholic nation and it isn’t something they’re shy about. That’s evident in the roadside shrines found at the sites of fatal car crashes and the light up Mary and Jesus icons dotted about the rugged landscape. And they take their respect for the dead very seriously, as demonstrated by the tens of thousands of beautifully-kept limestone mausoleums and gravestones, often adorned with photographs of the deceased and crucifix motifs. But under the undeniable stunning exterior of this immense cemetery is a rather grim truth – there simply isn’t room for any more dead.
Although tiny at only 316 square miles, Malta is actually one of the world’s most densely populated countries with a current headcount of over 445,000 at the last census. On an island which currently has no cremation facilities – Maltese residents (don’t call them Maltesers) who want to cremate are currently forced to ship their loved ones off to nearby Sicily or Italy for the job – it’s easy to see how the Maltese people are facing increasingly urgent issues of soil pollution, corruption and grave desecration in their burial grounds.
As the largest cemetery on the island, Addolorata is already way over capacity at over 15,500 graves, and recent newspaper reports have exposed unsavoury practices of black market grave trading, allegedly involving the desecration and re-selling of unvisited monuments. Added to that the accusations of poor hygiene practises and possible impending health risk it almost seems slightly unethical to enjoy the beauty of this sprawling cemetery, but on the hot and breezy day I visited all of that unpleasantness seemed a million miles away.
You could spend hours in Addolorata, with its multiple levels and intricately decorated monuments, but with the sun beating down I tried to stick to the shady spots, protected from the suffocating heat by pine trees and the shadows of the larger mausoleums. Most of what I saw was pretty standard albeit beautiful neo-Gothic cemetery fare, but there were a few surprises in store.
I was slightly shocked to find hidden away at the back a bizarre square of land, very much in the shadow of the looming walls of the upper layers and containing only a few tiny gravestones. I managed to decipher some of the well worn etchings and realised this was a separate cemetery for infants. It seemed incredibly sad that these unfortunate babies were buried so separate from the rest of the inhabitants and that the plots had fallen to such neglect, but maybe in its 19th century heyday this offered more privacy for the special kind of grief felt by parents who’ve lost a child in infancy.
I was also surprised by some of the variation in the monuments, including an enormous and very severe looking stone pyramid, and a large mausoleum engraved with the sobering lines: “The universal leveller show the emptiness of human pride and ambition and the feebleness of man.” Well, you can’t argue with that.
And of course, what part of Malta would be complete without a stray cat! I found this lovely but shy thing soaking up the sun and maybe guarding the doors of a tomb towards the top of the cemetery, but I’m not sure who was more surprised to see who.
Despite its current reputation, I’m glad I finally got round to exploring Addolorata Cemetery and I hope that the Maltese government come up with a solution to its overcrowding problems – not only for the benefit of its population but also to preserve this breathtaking example of neo-Gothic cemetery architecture for generations to come.
by Katie Roberts