„They, too, are God’s children“

When the Sicilian press reports about refugees drowned in the Mediterranean Sea, it is usually followed by a list of town names. Names of those communities that agreed to bury the refugees in their cemeteries. The coastal villages where bodies have been washed up or where rescue boats have landed at do not have the capacity to bury all the corpses in their communal cemeteries.

More than 50 Sicilian cemeteries have become home to refugee graves. And each community finds its individual way to bury the dead. Sometimes, the refugee graves are located at the edges of the cemetery, the place where the poor have always been buried. Or, explicitly, at the most central place of the cemetery. Like in Castellamare del Golfo, where a grave field with three dozens of white marble stones was laid out on a green lawn. Nothing resembling poor graves. In other towns, loose stones or wooden pieces with handwritten numbers identify burial mounds. Or there may be a simple slip of paper nailed to a wooden slat taking the place of a grave stone.

With large-scale names on huge tombstones, with family grave sites and photographs all over, Sicilian cemeteries were not meant to be anonymous places for the deceased. Nowadays, however, there are more and more graves with a plain number instead of a photograph. And those numbers are often only scratched into the concrete slabs closing up a grave niche.

Between 35 and 40 years old, between 12 and 17 years old. Male, female. Some tombstones do not display more than that. At least there will be a little more to a human being than the single word „sconoscuito“ (“unknown”), if there is no name available and no history to a name. It is a last service and a last attempt to restore some identity of the unidentified refugees.

Those refugees whose identity can be proven and who can be buried with a name and a photograph are but a few. Occasionally, months or years later, an anonymous grave can be turned into a burial ground with a name. For instance, when family members can be identified by means of a DNA-matching. On a child’s grave in Ribera, a photograph and a name could be attached later on. When their boat had sunken, the parents could be rescued. They firmly believed that their son was still alive, were looking for him and published his photograph. Someone recognized their son: The doctor who had performed the postmortem on the boy.

In Syracuse, two dozen graves for refugees long deceased were set up. They belong to those whose corpses were recovered in the bow of a ship in the summer of 2016. It had sunken off the shore of Augusta a year ago. “They, too, are God’s children”, an employee of the cemetery reiterates. They are buried side by side with the Italian and Catholic dead. It is not important that, most probably, they were Muslims in live and in death.