FOR years, the silent tombs had remained in the late-18th century graveyard in George Town, Penang, largely ignored by people.
When news broke out that the Roman Catholic Church intended to exhume the remains from 204 graves, visitors started popping by. Among them were people claiming to be relatives of those buried there, heritage conservationists, pressmen and curious folk.
As one reader aptly observed: “The graveyard has probably seen more visitors over the past few weeks than it ever had over the past few decades.”
The graveyard is located within the grounds of the Church of Saint Francis Xavier on Penang Road, next to the St Joseph’s Home which has over 50 boys and girls.
Among the notable graves are those of several Infant Jesus Sisters and De La Salle Brothers who were pioneers in education and welfare work in the country. The nuns included Convent Light Street founder Mother Pauline Marie Rodot and seven other Sisters linked to the school’s early years. Other early Catholics buried there included those who were invited to Penang by Capt Francis Light to escape persecution in South Thailand.
The graveyard is located next to the sleeping quarters of the St. Joseph's Home, and is a source of fear for many of the children, especially at night.
A wall separates the cemetery from the better-known Francis Light Protestant Cemetery, where many of the island’s prominent European pioneers, such as Capt Francis Light himself, were buried. Unlike the Protestant cemetery, though, the Catholic cemetery is not listed as a historical attraction in Penang.
In adherence to the Penang Municipal Council’s guidelines, the registered proprietor of the land, the Titular Roman Catholic Bishop of Penang, took out advertisements about the exhumation in several national English, Chinese and Tamil dailies once a week for three consecutive weeks.
Penang Bishop Rev Antony Selvanayagam had said that the scattered graves would be exhumed for systematic reburial within the same compound, to make room for a playground for the Home’s children.
He gave the assurance that every grave-marker and tomb will be preserved in accordance with Catholic principles and the reburial will be conducted according to Catholic rites, adding that everything salvaged from the burial ground will be treasured.
“Our intention of exhuming the graves is to maximise the use of the land for a good purpose. We have no hidden agenda,” said Rev Antony.
The girl’s dormitory at the Home was destroyed in a fire in July last year, and a new three-storey block comprising a hall, a 40-bed girls’ dormitory, utility room, resource centre, meeting room and study room is now being constructed over the open area where the Home’s children used to play.
However, the Church’s intention was met with protest from various quarters, including descendants of those buried there, the Alum-ni Convent Light Street (ACLS), Penang Heri-tage Trust (PHT), Heritage Alert Group, and individuals.
PHT president Dr Choong Sim Poey said the destruction of the historic cemetery would affect the credibility of Penang in seeking recognition as a World Heritage Site by Unesco.
He said the cemetery should be tidied up and provided with proper interpretative signage for edification of the Catholic community to highlight their role in Penang’s early development.
He said this will cost less than the proposed exhumation, adding that historic cemeteries were not normally exhumed for such trivial reasons even where land is scarce, such as in London, Paris or Washington.
The ACLS said the exhumation of the nuns’ graves would be a serious injustice to their memory, and urged the Church to allow the nuns to rest in peace and dignity.
Malaysia-born historian and scholar Dr Christine Choo , now an Australian resident and a researcher with the University of Western Australia, described the cemetery as the oldest Catholic one in Penang.
She said the cemetery was significant to the history and heritage of Penang, and to the living relatives of those buried there.
“Historic buildings, cemeteries and archives are very important to any community as they hold the links – strong, tangible links – between our ancestors and us, and future generations,” she said. Some members of her family are buried in that cemetery.
“It is important for our own identity and history to maintain these links in a respectful way.”
Despite all these objections, there are others who support the Church’s idea.
A reader, S.F. Lim, wrote to The Star to urge the people to give the bishop a chance to do what the Church felt was best for the orphans.
He said the graveyard was located next to the Home’s sleeping quarters, and many of the children were sometimes scared at night.
“We may think that this is very silly but, for a kid, the fear is real especially more so when they do not have their parents or siblings with them,” said Lim.
“The compound of the graveyard is tidy and well kept by the church but the graves are in a deplorable state with fallen gravestones, some of which are completely illegible and some desecrated.
“I am surprised that the descendants of those buried there had not cared for their ancestors’ graves but are now protesting in the name of protecting the memories of their ancestors. Where have they been all these years? If they want to protect their memories, why are so many gravestones in such a deplorable state?
“Over the years, many of them did not visit these graves. Did they only remember their ancestors when they found out that the Church had decided to exhume the graves?”
Lim’s view is shared by many other Catholics, most of whom do not want to express their opinion openly, as they do not wish to offend fellow Catholics with family members buried in the graveyard.
Penang Eurasian Association (PEA) president Gerald Green said he had also received similar feedback from some members and even those in his committee.
“Generally, our members who have family members buried there are unhappy about the exhumation. But we also have members who agree with what the Bishop plans to do,” said Green.
“Some are saying that the graveyard is run down and the descendants had not visited or kept them tidy.
“Others are saying that the church has plenty of land and could build the playground elsewhere, and would it not be frightening for the children to have a playground built over an old burial ground?”
Green said the PEA committee was still compiling information and feedback from its members, and would be meeting to finalise details and the correct approach to take before seeking an audience with the Bishop for a clearer idea of the Church’s plans.
PEA committee member Neil Theseira, 63, was one of those who agreed with Lim, saying that Lim gave the facts without being clouded by emotion.
Theseira, who used to be a care assistant at the St Joseph’s Home several years ago, said he was not speaking out in support of the Church just so that the children could have a playground.
“The graveyard is an eyesore. It would be good if the place was done up nicely. It should be cleaned up and made presentable, with proper fencing put in place,” said Theseira.
“During the three years that I was working there, I did not see anybody visiting the graveyard. At the most, there would be one family there on All Souls’ Day. The situation was different across the wall, where we could see people visiting the Protestant cemetery.”
He also said that parts of the low-lying graveyard would get flooded during heavy rain and high tide.
He had also seen police raiding the graveyard with drug-sniffing dogs, and collecting plastic bags from behind the tombstones.
Penang-born clerk S.T. Tan, 37, who now resides in Kuala Lumpur, said it was immaterial whether a living relative visited a person’s grave.
“Your grave is your final resting place,” said Tan, who has a Eurasian grandmother.
“A cemetery plot today costs a lot of money. It is cheaper but still quite costly to pay for a cubby-hole to put your ashes. But you still need a place for your remains. Even the law requires proper disposal of a person’s remains.
“Supposing, two centuries later, no one visits your grave or places flowers at your part of the crematorium, does that mean that you have to lose your final resting place? If so, why did you pay all that money in the first place? Why not just tell your kids to throw your body into the sea after you die? But you can’t. It’s illegal.”
Tan admits that he has ancestors buried in another Catholic cemetery in Western Road, Penang, but rarely goes there to visit or clean up the place.
“I dread to think of what would happen to that cemetery centuries from now, when land becomes even more scarce. And I don’t even want to think of what will happen to my remains after I am dead and long gone.”
While the Catholic Church’s idea of cleaning up the place meant exhuming and rearranging the graves in an orderly fashion within the same compound, the Penang Heritage Trust has offered its expertise in repairing and restoring the graveyard instead.
PHT’s Francis Light Protestant Cemetery Restoration Project coordinator L.L. Loh-Lim said the current state of the Catholic cemetery was caused by neglect, and the situation was entirely reversible.
“If it is restored, it could become a wonderful and attractive site for visitors and a pride for the Catholic community,” said Loh-Lim.
“I read in the newspapers that the Church estimated that it would cost RM250,000 to exhume the graves, rebury the remains, erect a memorial and build a playground.
“For a much lesser amount at the much larger Francis Light Protestant Cemetery, the perimeter walls and gateposts were repaired and repainted, all graves were cleaned, and 90% of all severely damaged graves were repaired and the inscriptions re-inked.
“An information plaque with a map to the more famous graves was also put up. All that at a cost of only RM17,000 from a private donor, the landowner the Penang Municipal Council and the State Tourism Board.”
Loh-Lim also offered her team’s expertise in compiling a proper record of the burials and inscriptions on the tombstones of those in the graveyard, saying that the list of 73 names published by the Church in the notice of exhumation was hasty and inaccurate.
Rev Antony had earlier said that the list of names had been provided by the municipal council.
Until the June 11 deadline to respond to the exhumation notice, the Catholic Diocesan Centre had received about 10 to 15 letters and e-mail from interested parties. Of these, only four were actual objections.
For the time being, Rev Antony has indicated that he would like to sort things out properly before speaking to the press again. He also indicated that he would soon be meeting with all those who had written in.
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