Ta’ Gadaf Cemetery - Naxxar

Have you ever come across something for the first time – a word you’d never heard before or an unfamiliar make of car – and suddenly you start noticing it on a regular basis? Yes?  Well that isn’t surprising because it is quite a common occurrence, so much that there’s even a term for it: the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon.

In simple terms, it is all down to our brain’s remarkable ability to recognise and amplify patterns.   When it learns something that is new (or weird) and then comes across it again shortly afterwards it is likely to highlight it.  Coupled with the recency effect, a cognitive bias that inflates the importance of recent observations, this increases the chances of being more aware of the subject when we encounter it again in the near future.  It also explains why usually the feeling is of mild surprise when this happens.

All this came to mind – or rather the impulse to look into it – when I drove past a familiar looking building at the edge of Naxxar.  It took me a couple of moments to realise what made it familiar before finally recollecting that the skull chiselled at the top of the main door was a sure sign that this was a cemetery.  A couple of weeks earlier I had been near a similar cemetery in Victoria (Gozo) and then the following week at Luqa.

Indeed this one is known as the Ta’ Gadaf cemetery and was in use when the bubonic plague hit the Maltese islands two centuries ago.  It was a terrible time in Malta’s history, with more than four thousand people losing their lives and that is according to official records; many more probably died of the same reason but where hidden away by their family to avoid seeing them carted away in plague carts.

Those who did die of the plague were buried in shallow graves, often in unceremonious circumstances, and this is what happened here.  It was an ignoble end to people’s lives especially in an era where death, and how one prepared for it, was seen as an integral and crucial part of one’s faith.

In time, once the crisis had passed, a more formal construction rose around it with proper graves being dug out.  Sadly, however, this cemetery is now derelict.  It is over-run by weeds and trees whilst rubble is all that remains of two of its walls.  The graves themselves are open, although I have to admit that a mixture of respect and a slight tinge of fear meant that I didn’t actually go into the cemetery to investigate the graves themselves.

Nevertheless, it is a shameful state of affairs.  In an area that is seeing a lot of development in the form of a rapidly expanding industrial estate, with the monstrous buildings that are typical of such developments, one would imagine that the restoration of this tiny cemetery would be seen as an important way to retain a link to our island’s past not to mention offer the proper respect to those who were buried here.

Note: In case you’re wondering, the origin of the term Baader-Meinhof is unknown.  Baader-Meinhof was actually a far-left militant group that operated in West-Germany for almost three decades starting in the early seventies.  There seems to be no direct link between this group and the phenomenon but what probably happened is that someone came across the name once and then heard it soon afterwards, thereby linking the two forever.

These are the directions to the Ta' Gadaf cemetery remains.


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