Kibbutz Burials Make a Lively Business

The disbanding of the kibbutz movement turned more than a few worried members of former collectives into active entrepreneurs, who did not shy away from pursuits they never would have imagined for themselves in the past. Performing burials, for example.

The first kibbutz to recognize the field's potential was Kibbutz Einat, near Petah Tikva. Back in 1991, the kibbutz responded to requests from people with no religious affiliation who wanted to arrange for secular burial, and opened the kibbutz cemetery's gates to all who called. In recent years the industry has gained momentum, with Kibbutz Ein Carmel, near Haifa, offering this service, too.

"The kibbutz's poor financial situation prompted us to seek a new industry that would utilize the existing infrastructure," explains Gili Friedman, a native of Ein Carmel and currently the director of the Gan Eden cemetery, which was established three years ago. "The kibbutz has had a cemetery ever since the 1950s, and annual maintenance costs have spiraled to NIS 100,000. The area is not full, as the original master plan set spacious boundaries. After allocating plots for all the kibbutz members, we were left with 700 empty spots."

Friedman decided that the free space could be turned into a section where any type of Jewish burial ceremony could be held, for a fee (kibbutz members are buried there free of charge).

The business plan Friedman submitted to the kibbutz administration was met with marked skepticism, but was approved. Many kibbutz members felt unhappy with the decision, nonetheless.

"Some contended that it was undignified to earn money from someone else's final path," recalls Friedman. "Some complained that we had gone from being idealistic to capitalizing on other people's misfortune. But most understood that were simply meeting a need."

How did this need arise? Urban cemeteries, in general, are depressing, and when in addition, they are far away, have the atmosphere of a factory, and also do not allow for personalized ceremonies, people are going to look for an alternative. The more requests we received, the more we realized that we could offer a solution, cover our costs and even make a profit."

Friedman's plan slowly became a reality. "We decided not to invest a lot, but to allocate 30 plots, and invest the money from their sale in infrastructure," says Friedman. "A person's final path is a very sensitive matter, but the dearly departed is just that - gone, and those who have to return again and again are the living. We wanted to offer ceremonial variations on the one hand, and a positive visiting experience, on the other. Our plan was to develop a place that would not be burdensome on visitors and would not make them want to flee."

What sort of permits did you need from the government or other public bodies?

"None whatsoever. We realize that the Israel Lands Administration will probably ask for its cut in the future, and are prepared for this."

The news of the alternative cemetery traveled fast, and the first 30 plots were sold. The kibbutz recognized the commercial potential in the cemetery and invested NIS 400,000 in developing the physical site further. So far 70 burials have been held at Gan Eden, and another 200 plots have already been reserved. The cemetery moved into the black in its second year of operation, and now brings in over NIS 1 million a year.

Even though Gan Eden is a civil cemetery where a loved one can be buried in a coffin, in an individualized ceremony, Friedman notes that 70 percent of the funerals performed there are strictly Orthodox - without a coffin, with the body wrapped in only a shroud.

"A rabbi once told me that even when Jews like to live like pigs, they want to die as Jews," says Friedman. "Most of the ceremonies are traditional, some with the addition of secular texts. Others are totally atheist. One funeral here included a eulogy written by the deceased, following which the 150 participants toasted her with champagne."

Who are your competitors?

"Our real competition is not with the other kibbutzim that offer a similar service, but rather with the conservatism that leads people to favor a conventional ceremony."

Still, people are willing to pay NIS 17,000 plus VAT. "Most of our clientele are upper-middle class, but we have also had customers who did not have the means to pay that price."

If you had known three years ago what running a cemetery involved, would you still have embarked on this undertaking?

"It is not easy to deal with death on a daily basis, but knowing that I am helping others through the difficult process of loss and separation makes it easier, as does the economic justification, which is to the benefit of the kibbutz."