The architect Tuvia Sagiv last week told the producers of Razi Barkai's current events program on Army Radio that he would not take part in it unless he was assured that Barkai would be serious about the subject Sagiv had been invited to discuss - multilevel burial. Barkai gave his word but didn't keep it, Sagiv says.
Headline writers in the papers also competed with one another for the most smart-alecky phrase. Sagiv is already used to the simultaneously cynical and embarrassed jesting and to the childish guffaws that the subject generates. For the past 30 years, he and his partner, architect Uri Ponger, have been warning about the anomaly of continuing the custom of "field burial" in Israel. At regular intervals, they put forward their concept and their solutions for the lack of burial space, and they always encounter the same reactions.
The offputting image of multilevel burial is undoubtedly one of the reasons for the lethargic treatment of a subject whose importance can hardly be overestimated. In a crowded country such as Israel, "it is inconceivable that we should live in tall buildings but continue to be buried in houses with land attached," Sagiv says.
Under the method currently in use, Israel consumes one dunam (a quarter of an acre) of land per day for burial purposes. For example, if the method of high-density burial had been introduced at the cemetery in Holon, which serves the Tel Aviv area, when Sagiv and Ponger first launched their struggle, there would be enough space there for the next 200 years.
Decades after the issue was first placed on the public agenda, the creeping "suburbanization" of cemeteries in urban areas is continuing unabated. Even sporadic visitors to Yarkon Cemetery can easily see how rapidly the site is spreading. The cemetery is relatively new and areas for high-density burial have been allocated in it, but the plan has not yet been approved or the financing found. Using the regular method of burial, the space in the cemetery will be enough for only a few more months.
Har Hamenuhot cemetery in Jerusalem has spread to the point where it is almost touching Highway 1 at the entrance to the city. According to Ponger, the fact that the cemetery is approaching the highway is an unplanned, improvised development, but in the absence of a legal alternative it is impossible to stop this from happening.
A partial solution to the Jerusalem problem will be found in the form of the new cemetery in the city, which Ponger is now planning and where only high-density burial will be permitted, subject to a decision by the Israel Lands Administration.
Nevertheless, Ponger says, implementing such a decision will encounter resistance from the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) population, even though multilevel burial has always been customary in Judaism and is in use today in Jewish communities outside Israel.
A genuine revolution was the recent approval of a cemetery in a disused stone quarry at Bareket, near Tel Aviv, which Sagiv and Ponger planned and where 90 percent of the burial will be high-density. The site will have space for 260,000 graves and will serve the Tel Aviv area for 100 years. Bareket cemetery is part of a comprehensive plan that Sagiv and Ponger have put forward to rehabilitate abandoned quarries in the country that are no longer usable for any other purpose. Contingency plans also include proposals to add levels to existing cemeteries such as the Holon site.
The transition to high-density burial will also involve a physical and visual revolution. At present, cemeteries are open areas in the heart of densely built areas. In some cases they constitute, perhaps absurdly, green spaces and pastoral gardens. However, with the necessary change in burial they will become full-fledged structures.
The planning of cemeteries has not been considered a legitimate part of the profession of architecture in Israel - Sagiv and Ponger are almost the only architects who are engaged in this. Ponger became aware of the importance of the subject when he was studying architecture in Berlin in the 1960s. His degree dissertation was about planning a metropolitan Jewish cemetery with high-density burial.
Neither schools of architecture nor the architectural community are engaged in planning for high-density burial. The presence of burial structures as part of the urban landscape will henceforth acquire great significance, and it is time the subject became part of the professional discourse. It is to be hoped that one of the fundamental principles of ancient Jewish burial will be respected - modesty.