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So, How Do You Organise A Civil, Secular Funeral In Malta Exactly?

A how-to guide to getting buried without the grace of God

With civil marriages on the rise in Malta, more and more Maltese people want to know about alternative forms of burial. With Catholic funeral rites a near necessity in Malta, people are exploring alternative ways of putting their body to rest, without any religion being involved. 

Barely one year ago this week, Ramon Casha, a well-known Maltese Humanist, was laid to rest at a secular funeral at the Radisson Blu Golden Sands resort.

The secular funeral was a rare scene in Maltese society. During the funeral, the speakers celebrated his life, his deeds, and his dreams.

There were no platitudes. Noone spoke of Ramon 'being in a better place', or that 'he was looking over us' - there was an acceptance that the human being that was Ramon Casha had passed away forever.

As people begin to explore different version of spirituality, and some invariably move to atheism, more and more Maltese people are wondering how they can organise a secular funeral for themselves.

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Ramon Casha's Funeral

"There isn't a proper administrative or legal framework for the execution of this right"

Martin Bugelli

What kind of funeral would your body like?

Martin Bugelli hopes to have a civil funeral when he passes from this mortal coil. He has expressed his wishes to his children, who seem happy enough to fulfil his plans upon his death.

However, there is nothing legally binding them, or, indeed, the Maltese state, into fulfilling his final request. 

"I'm a baptised Catholic, I have a family and when I die I want a civil, secular funeral," Mr Bugelli told Lovin Malta. "It's not illegal and its perfectly doable. Theres only one problem: I cannot organise it when I die. There’s no instrument to do it right now."

Mr Bugelli pointed out the difficulties in ensuring your funeral is held as you wished in your will once you pass away, since, for obvious reasons, you won't be able to oversee it. 

"There isn't a legal framework - and its not just for funerals. It's a bit of a vicious circle, it's a bit of technicality, and it's not a law," he said.

Mr Bugelli points to a person's will as the document that has a final say over how one's body is taken care of upon death.

"The raison d'être of a will is to determine what happens to my possessions after I die, including my body" he said.

"It's not an issue of principle, nor a political issue. It's just that there isn't a proper administrative or legal framework for the execution of this right due to the simple reason that the will is opened after death," he said. 

Mr Bugelli makes a suggestion that could work as a legal framework in this regard.

"The only way this can be addressed is that there are two parts of the will: one that is opened before the burial, and one that is opened after the burial," he says.

"If the first paragraph of the will is always known to be instructions for the funeral, and it is opened immediately upon death, the notary can say 'listen, there's this condition'. And the family can be informed that unless they abide by the will, they will not be given any of the other possessions in the will," he said. "It’s purely in the timing of the execution."

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"The funeral belongs to the family, not to the body"

Reuben Zammit, Malta Humanist Society

Will the actual body be attending the funeral?

Reuben Zammit is a celebrant with the Malta Humanist Association, and was one of the speakers at Ramon Casha's funeral. The MHA offer secular help with many types of events, such as weddings, funerals, or even baby-namings.

He focuses on the practical issues around organising a funeral without religious rites, and differentiates between "body-present funerals" and "memorials", where the body has already been disposed off prior to the ceremony. 

"The chosen venue for a body-present funeral needs to be cleared for health reasons before hosting the body," he tells Lovin Malta. "What that entails is anybody's guess though. As far as I know, a body-present funeral has never been done by the Maltese Humanist Association. The problem is that with a funeral in Malta you need to bury the body quickly as opposed to the UK where you have some days to organise."

He says that it's important to "keep in mind that the funeral belongs to the family, and not to the body."

"In regards to a faithless body that is lucky to have a family adamant in respecting their wishes for a body-present funeral, it's completely unknown territory. Memorials without the body on the other hand are easy and run-of-the-mill," he says.

"The easiest option so far is to just bury the body without rites and have a memorial later," he says. "Of course having a celebrant accompany the body is an option but graveside funerals are not that much of a thing locally from what I gather."

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Dr Clinton Bellizzi

"It's pretty much uncharted and unregulated territory"

Dr Clinton Bellizzi

Legally speaking

Dr Clinton Bellizzi is a visiting assistant lecturer in civil law at the University of Malta, who told Lovin Malta that having a body-present civil funeral is "pretty much uncharted and regulated territory," - but it is not illegal in any way.

He said that an ID card along with a burial certificate is needed for the will to be shown after there has been a death. 

He also said that "the person drawing up the will has to definitely inform the next of kin or the person entrusted to take care of the funeral of their wishes. The same thing goes when someone leaves his body for research for the university," he said.

"The best thing to do is for the person to write a 'letter of wishes' to the next of kin. This is something that would show your intention to your next of kin or whoever is taking care of the funeral arrangements," Dr Bellizzi said.

This letter of wishes is not part of the will, and as such would be known prior to the burial. However, it is not legally binding.

"It is not legal in the way a will is. We don't recognise holographic wills, which are the wills written up by the person themselves. But then it is up the next of kin to see that my rights and wishes are upheld," he said.

How to hold a body-present civil burial in Malta

You will be pioneering a new type of funeral in Malta, but you would not be breaking the law in anyway if you get the correct clearances.

It would also really help to get your family on your side - once you are dead, your future - if you want to call it that - is quite literally in their hands. 

1. Find a location that would allow a dead body on the premises for a non-religious ceremony

2. Get clearance from the Ministry of Health to have a dead body in that building

3. Have a letter of wishes addressed to your next of kin that makes it clear that you want a civil burial, cremation, burial at sea, or want to donate your body to research

4. Choose the kind of music you want to be played at the funeral, and any similar details - any directions you can give to your family about your final ceremony preparations would help them to no end

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Written By

Johnathan Cilia

Johnathan is interested in the weird, dark, and wonderful contradictions our late-capitalist society forces upon us. He also likes music and food. Contact him at johnathan@lovinmalta.com.

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