Dying just before the AAPSO conference that would spur the indictment against the Malta Labour Party, Labour MP Guze Ellul Mercer would suffer the interdett anyway. The author of the classic social commentary Leli ta’ Haz-Zghir ended up buried in the unconsecrated part of the Addolorata cemetery, infamously known as the Mizbla.
One would never suspect this tucked away part of the Addolarata cemetery had once symbolised the extent to which the Maltese church would go to in order to single out the people it feared were plotting its downfall. The ‘mizbla’ (rubbish-dump) was a small stretch of wasteland exactly adjacent to the cemetery.
The mizbla still elicits feeling of rancour from all sides. An old priest from Mellieha who spoke to MaltaToday on condition of anonymity says the mizbla was an invention: “There was no such thing as the mizbla. It was customary to bury those who had fallen out of God’s grace in unconsecrated grounds.”
But former Labour minister Joe Micallef Stafrace says the “so-called Christians” came up with the word mizbla to describe the area where the Labourites were buried.”
Ellul Mercer’s nephew Anthony Vella still remembers the path that leads to his uncle’s grave. “The wall that separated the cemetery from the Mizbla had a narrow entrance,” explains Vella.
“Children at school were always passing comments about the way uncle Joe had died. He died alone, so people started circulating rumours about the cause of death.” He speaks lovingly of his uncle who always took time out of his busy schedule to entertain his nephews and nieces with stories that always fascinated the children.
Vella remembers the trials and tribulations that the family had to endure even during Ellul Mercer’s burial. Like all other families whose relatives were about to be buried in the mizbla, Ellul Mercer’s family tried to persuade the curia to allow the Labour MP, a “God-fearing man till his death,” a dignified burial – but to no avail.
Vella recalls that in the eighties the church authorities contacted the family and informed them that they were willing to transfer Ellul Mercer’s remains to the consecrated part of the cemetery. The family refused on principle.
Back then the graves were not adorned with any fancy marble statues or granite slabs. It is almost certain that people walking by this place would not glance at these simple graves. The horizontal slabs of limestone used to be covered with twigs, bits and pieces of wood and assorted rubble.
As an unconsecrated burial ground, the mizbla was not considered part of the cemetery, attracting dumping of foliage and rubble on the ground. Vella remembers there was never any plaque commemorating the icons of the worker’s movement buried in the mizbla, but the Msida MLP club paid for the marble tomb that today covers Ellul Mercer’s grave.
Freddy Micallef, the present secretary of the MLP Msida club remembers his MP: “He was a gentleman and a great author, I still have his books.”
Most of the graves situated in this peaceful nook have no connection whatsoever with the past religious-political feud. The Labour government tore down the wall over two decades ago and most of the families transferred the remains of their loved ones to their family graves.
“Guze Ellul Mercer loved Msida and her people and they loved him,” Micallef says as he recalls that the executive committee decided to dig in its pockets to pay tribute to a man who usually shied away from public adulation. They also commissioned a bust of Ellul Mercer and a lesser-known Msida woman who had also been interdicted and buried in the mizbla.
Liza Zammit was only 49 years old when she was run over by a car in Rue d’Argens. Her being a devout Catholic didn’t stop Gonzi from issuing the interdiction edict the morning of her funeral. She had just walked out of church and was on her way home when she died. A priest ran out of a passing bus to administer her the last rites.
Gonzi’s former PRO, Mgr Charles Vella says he had convinced the archbishop to be more moderate during the Curia’s dispute with Mintoff, by issuing interdiction to the MLP executive instead to all of the party members.
Although slightly sceptical about the veracity of Liza Zammit’s case, he expresses his regret for the incident and says: “tell them to remove her remains if they haven’t already done so.”
Indeed, when granted permission by the Curia her family removed her remains from there. One of her six children, Rose Falzon, says: “we had to cope with the shock of losing our mother and then being told that she would not be blessed by the priest.”
The family was on the verge of starting the mourning rituals with the routine procession from the hospital when the priest was ordered to leave and they were told to remove the cross from the casket carrying Zammit. The presiding undertaker had insisted the cross remained on the casket, and so it did. The funeral was also postponed till the evening.
“Pandemonium broke out when we heard about the edict,” says Falzon. “We were tremendously upset because it was a disgrace to be buried in unconsecrated grounds in those times… our faith and that of others remained strong irrespective of the show that they wanted to make out of my mother’s death.”