I write in response to a news report entitled, ‘State govt to update register of burial plots’ dated Sept 8 published in a local English newspaper.
The news report quotes the MPPP President, Patahiyah Ismail, requesting: ‘individuals with burial rights or the family members and personal representatives of the deceased buried in the 19th century cemetery located on Jalan Utama (formerly known as Western Road) to provide certain information regarding the plot to the council by Nov 30.
‘The information includes date of purchase of the plot and plot number; name and address of the applicants and representatives; evidence of fees paid for the purchase; and name of the deceased buried (if any). The notice (also) said if the information is not provided, the council would take action to re-possess the burial plots for other uses.’
As someone from an old Penang family with extended family members buried in the Western Road cemetery for over 100 years, I am deeply concerned with the legality and practicality of MPPP’s notice and subsequent threat of arbitrary action against non-provision of information or proof of burial plot purchase/ownership.
Why cannot MPPP simply refer to its cemetery register to gather all the relevant information it needs about who purchased which burial plot and who presently owns it (i.e. family/descendants of the purchaser)? Why does MPPP require us to re-register and then threaten to ‘seize’ (for that is what it is) old burial plots for re-use if family and descendants are unable to provide proof of purchase or of ownership of plots?
How does MPPP plan to solve problems that will surely arise in cases where family members and descendants of the Western Road dead who are now living overseas remain ignorant of this notice? After all, not only are local Penangites buried in Western Road but thousands of foreigners also. So, if overseas-based relatives of the dead in Western Road are unable to register their claims with MPPP by the deadline due to ignorance, does this mean MPPP has the right to seize these plots and re-use them for new burials by others?
And what of those who purchased plots for their family or themselves years ago and who now lie buried in the very same plots that they purchased but who presently do not have any living family members to re-register their claims over their own graves? Does MPPP expect these unfortunate people to resurrect themselves from the dead to re-register and provide proof of their claim over their own personal/family burial plots?
As well, many Penangites will find that we face a problem in providing proof of purchase and ownership over our own family burial plots. Most of the Western Road burial plots were purchased decades ago, some in the 19th Century and early 20th Century, even before World War II. This is especially true for those of us who come from old families in Penang. How do we, the living descendants of those who now lie buried in Western Road, who have tended our ancestors’ graves tenderly over the years, now unearth the original City Council receipts and burial certificates required to prove proof of purchase and ownership of burial plots from over 100 or even 50 years ago?
If I am not wrong, while the Western Road cemetery belongs to and is managed by MPPP (with financial support from the Catholic and Anglican Churches), the individual burial plots were sold to people ‘in perpetuity’. Hence, is it even legal for MPPP to issue such a notice with threats to ‘seize’ old burial plots if we do not re-register? Since when can MPPP simply threaten to seize our ancestor’s burial plots? What is the legal basis of MPPP’s thinking, re. seizure of old burial plots if nobody re-registers their claim over plots? Does MPPP’s thinking and threatened plan of action even have a legal basis?
Furthermore, assuming MPPP seizes all old burial plots for re-use, what then happens to the historical memory of all those buried previously in the now to be re-used plots? Are they and their memory simply to be obliterated? What then of our history as a city that memorializes our ancestors as part of our living heritage?
I am of the opinion that MPPP only has the right to ask descendants, family members and their appointed personal representatives to re-affirm ownership of burial plots. But that is the most that they can legally do. In my opinion, MPPP does NOT have any legal right to seize old burial plots even if nobody comes forward to re-register claim.
MPPP owes us all a full and transparent explanation of this arbitrary notice. As well, instead of MPPP merely announcing its whacky ideas about what it plans to do to improve management of the Western Road cemetery, it should hold an open dialogue with all stakeholders explaining to all what cemetery management problems it faces (if any) and what needs to be done to improve things at the cemetery.
My family (comprising the living members and all dead ancestors of both my father’s and mother’s families) certainly looks forward to receiving one from MPPP in the spirit of CAT – Competency, Accountability and Transparency.
Failing which, MPPP and the current Penang government can only expect the living members of those currently buried in Western Road to raise hellfire and brimstone to protect the graves of our family ancestors.