The Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel is expanding its section in the Har Hamenuchot Cemetery in Jerusalem, in response to a growing demand from members. Fifty burial plots in the Har Tamir section of the cemetery in Jerusalem's Givat Shaul have been reserved for AACI members, alongside the 50 plots sold to members there over the past year.
"A lot of our members feel that, being Jerusalemites, they want to be buried here," says Rabbi Jay Karzen, who serves as chairman of the AACI's cemetery and bereavement committee. "To be buried in Jerusalem has an almost mystical connotation."
Until recently, AACI members could only be buried under the association's burial program in the Eretz Hachaim Cemetery outside of Beit Shemesh, where the AACI section stretches to some 800 graves. But a year ago, following numerous requests from AACI members who wished to be buried in the capital, an arrangement was made to offer a second option - burial in a special section within the Har Hamenuchot cemetery.
Within six months, all 50 original graves set aside for AACI members at Har Hamenuchot were bought - according to Karzen, mostly by healthy Jerusalemites keen to secure a plot for the future. "A lot of [American-born Israelis] want to know while they are still healthy where their final resting place will be. It's a comfort to know that it is a respectable place that will be easy for their children and grandchildren to find," he says.
Israelis can be buried for free without having to pay for a plot, but the specific burial spot is then chosen by the municipal hevrah kadisha (burial society). The deceased's spouse then has to buy the adjoining plot, if the couple wishes to be buried side by side.
Karzen describes the AACI's burial program, which has been running for some 25 years, as part public service, part fundraiser, since the association receives a "small percentage" of the income from each burial plot sold. The program is only open to members of the AACI [which any English-speaking immigrants can join] and their families; the program attracts some Americans who have children living in Israel and know their graves will be regularly visited here.
The cost of purchasing a burial plot and funeral package through the program at Har Hamenuchot is $3,000 for Jerusalemites, $4,000 for other Israelis and $7,250 for those living abroad. The same package at Eretz Hachaim cemetery near Beit Shemesh costs $5,300 for Israelis and $5,800 for those abroad. Karzen also helps with funeral arrangements for those enrolled in the program, and occasionally officiates at services. Karzen says he receives between three and six inquiries a week about joining the program, and currently sales of plots at both AACI cemeteries are steady.
"Some people want their graves to be in Jerusalem for transportation purposes. It is hard [for their families] to visit Eretz Hachaim without a car," says Karzen, adding that more burial plots will be adjoined to the AACI section in the Jerusalem cemetery if there is further demand.
Aside from the location, Karzen points out other differences between the two cemeteries. Funerals at Har Hamenuchot, which is the city's municipal cemetery, tend to be given half-hour slots, whereas at the privately-owned Eretz Hachaim, there is less time pressure. Karzen says the AACI section at Har Hamenuchot was selected because it is wheelchair accessible unlike some sections of the cemetery, but Eretz Hachaim cemetery is even easier for those in wheelchairs, as it is all on one level. He adds that at Eretz Hachaim, women can only speak at the graveside after the burial, but are not permitted to give eulogies as they are at Har Hamenuchot.
The AACI's executive director David London said that the association is considering establishing a third cemetery for its members in the Tel Aviv or Netanya area. "We are still at a very preliminary stage, but it is a possibility," he said this week.
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