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Horse-drawn hearses back from the dead

The next time you spot a somewhat eerie carriage, being drawn by black horses, clad in black feathers and a cloak, driven by a man in a black suit and top hat, don't be fooled into thinking it's a scene out of Dracula.

The chances are you will spot one on the roads some time soon. Horse-drawn carriage hearses were last seen on our streets some 40 years ago but an undertaker has dug up his collection and is breathing new life into them, following public demand. Louis Borg's resurrection of the horse-drawn hearses comes in the wake of the liberalisation of the motorised market, which led him to diversify, giving him the edge over double the competitors he had before.

But he does not want to create another monopoly and is willing to extend the service of his restored carriages to other undertakers everywhere if their clients ask for it.

In fact, he does not mind if he fails to make money "as long as I revive the tradition," he said, touring his Sliema garages, piled with carriage paraphernalia including papier-mâché angels and equestrian equipment.

All he wants is to unearth that sense of respect for the dead that comes with the carriages. On their first appearance after four decades last week, they commanded much reverence from the man in the street, Mr Borg pointed out.

"Everyone bowed their heads, made the sign of the cross, looked in awe and moved aside. Normally, when we use the cars, it could be any other vehicle on the road. Nobody gives way," he continued.

Mr Borg has been driving the dead for 30 years and had never experienced such a scenario, which he deems fit for a funeral.

Some of his carriages are up to 120 years old and, unlike other undertakers, who sold them overseas and stripped them when they stopped using them in 1970, the Borg family had the foresight to keep theirs in storage.

Now he is bringing back from the dead his first-class carriage (tal-kewba), which was used by "rich Sliema residents"; the prima and sekonda, which are for lower levels of society respectively, but equally elaborate to the fresh eye; and the white version for babies and single women.

The set comprises the priest's carriage, which would also transport the altar boy dressed as he would have back then and carrying the large cross, sticking out of the window as tradition would have it.

In a €60,000 investment, Mr Borg is restoring them to their original state, using nothing but antique items, even down to the bolts and buttons.

In two weeks, a set of four carriages should be rearing to go and the whole project should be complete in nine months, when the undertaker would be able to carry out three funerals of the sort simultaneously. It cost Mr Borg around €5,000 to restore the prima and €3,500 for the priest's carriage, which comes complete with an old bell to function as a horn in case a driver gets distracted.

"This did not exist in the original but at least it is old too," he said, determined to remain in the past. It still has the original number plate - 260 from 1901.

He is even buying rubber tyres from overseas to put round the wheels to reduce the noise and be able to drive into Mdina and Valletta.

In fact, he plans to drive the carriages everywhere, according to requests. "We can go from any church in the area to the cemetery but would probably drive by car from Mater Dei Hospital to avoid the hills," he said.

His first carriage funeral from Msida to the Naxxar cemetery took 25 minutes - only 10 minutes more than it would have by car - and ran smoothly, he said.

"I am using traffic police each time," he said. "But anyway, everyone just moves out of the way."

Between 1959 and 1970, the public had the option of the motorised and horse hearses but then the latter were buried because it was more comfortable for undertakers to turn the key in the ignition and drive off.

"I have been receiving requests for these carriages for the last 15 years, particularly from the elderly in the villages. Mercedes and Rolls Royce are nothing next to them in their view," Mr Borg said.

Despite the added hassles, the carriage funerals are expected to cost "only a bit more" than the common cars.

Mr Borg already has six horses in his extensive fleet and is buying more from overseas. Now, all he needs is the government to provide him with a hangar in the Marsa area, where he can display all the options for clients to make their death wish.

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