Some of the inertia on the part of the city authorities may arguably be put down to the fact that segments at City Hall seem unprepared to entertain the reality of the extent of the vandalism or investigate the possible reasons for it. Public Relations Officer Royston King, for example, insisted to Stabroek News that the damage to tombs had two origins, the first of them being scrap metal dealers looking for ferrous metals. This was despite the fact it was pointed out to him that in many cases tombs which had been destroyed still had intact wrought iron railings around them. As we reported one of our sources saying in Monday’s edition, which dealer would destroy a tomb in order to get at a few metal rods at its base, and not take the easily available railings above the ground. Some years ago, there was indeed a problem with railings being stolen for the scrap metal market, but that does not appear to be the case currently.
The second explanation Mr King proffered for the damage to tombs was that they had been shoddily built and simply collapsed after a time, particularly if anyone had stood on them. This is probably so in some instances, but not in all, especially in the case of the older ones which are likely to have been more sturdily built. A lot of the damage was in fact in an older part of the cemetery, as a consequence of which the PRO was of the view that this had happened some time ago, but was not an issue now. Never mind that our reporter saw several tomb corners which had been recently broken in order for the fumes to escape before vandals opened them up. Never mind either, that he saw the tools of the grave-robber’s trade stashed away in the corner of one open tomb.
One thing that Mr King did confirm was that Le Repentir is running out of space. The Mayor and City Council, he said, was now clearing a section of the cemetery east of the Enmore Martyrs burial site in order to provide more space, although he did not tell this newspaper when the area would be available for use. It is a problem faced by almost every major urban area in the world, and cities like London have closed several of their public cemeteries to interment for this reason. Eventually, Le Repentir too is going to reach crisis point, and the authorities will have to cast around for more land space sooner rather than later.
In other cities considerable pressure has been taken off the cemeteries because cremation has become a popular alternative to burial. This country does not have a modern crematorium, which it is in desperate need of. The fuel used is generally natural gas, liquid propane or oil, and in the latest models the majority of the polluting agents in the stack emissions are contained. In addition, there are pollution monitoring systems available which can be employed to ensure the system is functioning properly. A crematorium, one would like to believe, should not be in the hands of city or central government, but should be a private venture. With the only option for many city residents being Le Repentir, one cannot help but feel a modern crematorium (or even crematoria) could not help but be profitable.
As for the burial ground, well of course it is true the city authorities don’t have the money to undertake proper maintenance or provide the security which is necessary, but that really is not an excuse. There are all kinds of partnership arrangements which could be explored to find the funds for the upkeep and security of the cemetery, and there are any number of Guyanese both in the diaspora as well as locally, who would be prepared to contribute financially on a regular basis because their relatives are buried there. (That is provided, of course, the money was not managed by either the city council or central government.) All it would take would be a little effort and a bit of imagination, both of which are in short supply at City Hall, not to mention the Ministry of Local Government.
Ideally, the management of Le Repentir should be in the hands of commissioners of some kind, who have independence of action and also manage the funds for the cemetery’s maintenance, etc, from both public and private sources. The state of the city’s burial ground is a symbol of how low we have sunk; if this represents the kind of respect we have for those who have gone before us, it speaks volumes about the respect we have for ourselves.