Sustainable Development and Jewish Law Come Into Play in Israel's Modern Necropolises

Vertical graves are the most efficient way to deal with Israel's shortage of burial space, but they also have a certain charm, say cemetery planners.

A new project in Jerusalem will result in the construction of a city of sorts that designers say will solve a space shortage, while providing a certain comfort to those in mourning. Architect Yechiel Komet is currently planning the largest and most crowded cemetery in Israel. It will be built on Har Hamenuhot in Jerusalem and will consist of more than 30,000 graves. In terms of the extent, the architectural detail and the traffic system, this is a real city, a kind of modern necropolis. And the price tag is steep.

"This is a project with many architectural touches and landscape sensitivity. It also takes into consideration the economic dimension, because the huge investment has to be justified," says Komet as he displays the up-to-date images of the future cemetery at a meeting in his office. The images show graves stacked, one on top of the other.

"There is a lot of power in cemeteries, and as an architect I am trying to make the ritual of burial easy to accomplish, as well as dignified; to think about the individual person who goes there to unite with the memory of a loved one, but also to think about the family accompanying their loved one on his final journey."

High-density or vertical burial is aimed at dealing with the shortage of space and the population growth in Israel. The hevra kadisha, Israel's religious burial society, and the Religious Services Ministry are jointly leading the process. They are advancing similar initiatives in Haifa and the center of the country, which will have space for thousands of new graves and will change the familiar landscape of cemeteries. The new cemetery on Har Hamenuhot will be part of a network of future burial cities. That network is already in the planning process, and the construction of some of these cemeteries is already underway.

Efficient but tricky

High-density burial is efficient and economical, but it poses many obstacles to planners: On one hand they must fulfill the requirements of Jewish law and on the other hand they must convince families that even though this is not the usual kind of burial, their relatives will nevertheless be at peace.

In the case of Har Hamenuhot, Komet has to deal with a steep slope. He has created a building based on terraces that contains the high-density burial solutions permitted by Jewish law (see box ). Instead of supporting walls, he has positioned massive walls with burial niches and he has solved the differences in height by means of a circular system of ramps that also contributes to the ceremonial atmosphere during funerals. Ivy and cypress trees will be planted amidst the graves, and Komet hopes that together with the stone facing, they will provide a dignified Jerusalemite atmosphere.

Komet, who is an observant Jew, has a great deal of experience in the hotel industry. He is responsible for the planning of the Queen of Sheba and Dan hotels in Eilat. When you look at his plans for Har Hamenuhot, it is hard not to recall the stepped terraces of the Eilat hotels, which seem to drink in the view of the Red Sea. "In most of the cemeteries in Israel there isn't any clear architectural statement, but when you're planning such a large area you also have to relate to the visitor's experience," he says. He sees both the hotels he's designed and the Har Hamenuhot cemetery as reminiscent of a type of "hanging gardens."

The cemeteries built over the centuries by Jewish communities in the Diaspora have not exceled as architectural spaces. Their designs put the emphasis on the tombstones, which are often intricately decorated. This tradition continued with the establishment of the State of Israel. Apart from a small plaza or modest service buildings, the cemeteries have remained large fields sown with tombstones (in contrast to the country's military cemeteries, which are characterized by detailed planning and design ).

The most obvious example of the typical Israeli cemetery is the one in Holon, which stretches over several kilometers and has a spatial hierarchy that creates a serious orientation problem. Anyone who nevertheless insists on looking for a design language can find it in the printing of pictures of the deceased on the tombstones, or the varied manipulations of the marble or granite. Often the results border on kitsch.

High-density burial offers new architectural potential because it requires the planners to put the graves very close together and to create some sort of building. The scale of the new cemeteries also necessitates the development of a design language, which will succeed in bridging between the individual grave and the overall space of the complex.

When architects Eytan Ronel and Dorit Levy set about planning a vertical burial building to contain 12,5000 graves at Hayarkon Cemetery, they tried to create a distinctive structure. The main facade of the building faces Highway 5 and reaches 11 meters in height. For that reason, the architects decided to give it the form of steps and integrate a lot greenery into it; this offers a pleasant view to drivers who pass the cemetery, insofar as a cemetery can be "pleasant."

Like the future building at Har Hamenuhot, here too the cemetery traffic follows a system of ramps that form a kind of sophisticated highway cloverleaf. "High-density burial is a hybrid of landscape development and construction," says Ronel, who has also planned the vertical burial structures at the Tel Regev cemetery near Haifa. "We must conform to very strict standards, from the perspective of Jewish law and the technical requirements, but on the other hand, no one is telling us how it has to look. In the places where we have succeeded, we created cemeteries that are more beautiful and better than what already exists."

At the cemetery Ronel is currently planning in Herzliya, he is using vertical burial structures in order to create a "neighborhood" space, as he calls it. At the center of the complex he has placed an avenue from which streets branch out to roundabouts. "This provides visitors with a feeling of security," he says. "At the ordinary cemeteries we know there is no architecture, there is no local identity, there is no intimacy, there is no privacy and there is no defined space."

In another corner of Hayarkon Cemetery Tuvia Sagiv, of Ponger-Sagiv Architects, is planning two burial buildings which together will have space for about 23,000 graves. "At the cemetery in Holon you have to walk a kilometer or two to reach the grave," he says when explaining his planning process. "Here you come to the entrance and the grave is closer. You are in a building made up of many spaces and it is possible to spend time in it. I think the method of burying in niches is more dignified. Instead of throwing the body into a pit they place it in a wall. This looks a lot more modern. At first people didn't believe they were getting these graves for free."

His design, he insists, is not just for others. "I have purchased graves for myself and my wife. It's all a matter of a state-of-mind," he says.

Urban challenge

Secular Israelis already see the hevra kadisha in a negative light, for a large part, and its transition to vertical burial is not helping its image. However, Hananya Shahor, the director of the Kehilat Yerushalayim Hevra Kadisha, says that more and more people are accepting the new burial methods. "Anyone who comes into our office these days already knows this is the main option," he says.

The hevra kadisha is investing considerable amounts of money in vertical burial: NIS 250 million at Har Hamenuhot and another NIS 190 at Hayarkon Cemetery. This funding is evident in the planning of the new cemeteries, which are characterized by special building elements, a comprehensive solution to the traffic systems and the services, and the landscape planning.

A number of construction companies are already offering prefabricated units for niche burials. The weight of every such unit reaches two tons. "The importance of the aesthetics at a cemetery is vastly increased in vertical burial," says Shahor. "The feeling of an open space with trees and birds is always more pleasant, and the moment you transform the cemetery into a building you are 'killing,' - in quotation marks - the cemetery. Therefore it is important to us that the new cemeteries have some charm, that there be a special architecture."

All three of the architects involved in vertical burial planning - Komet, Ronel and Sagiv - praise the openness of the hevra kadisha to new architectural and design ideas. "The people who are commissioning us have an understanding that it is necessary to make this a very dignified place. So they are giving us freedom to invest in the details of the design and the finish in a completely disproportional way," says Ronel. "When you are replacing the burial method you have to invest so that the public will not object to it." It is also possible to see in this some cautious signs of openness toward the secular public from the religious authorities.

High-density burial presents an urban challenge as well: With the accelerated process of urbanization in Israel, the new cemeteries are expected to become an integral part of cities within about 20 to 30 years. Sagiv believes that today's burial buildings have the potential for the creation of future urban parks. In another burial structure he planned in Kiryat Shaul, he created a kind of three-dimensional hill with greenery growing from all sides.

"Ultimately," he says, "the cemetery will become a park. There is greenery, there are trees, it will be close to a residential neighborhood. My dream is that the guidebooks will recommend a visit to the cemetery at Har Hamenuhot or Hayarkon Cemetery in exactly the same way people visit cemeteries in Europe today."

Types of high-density burial and their planning restrictions

In Israel more than 35,000 Jews pass away every year. In the field burial that had been the practice until recently, between 250 and 270 deceased are interred on every dunam of land. So each year, more and more land must used for that purpose. In the wake of a harsh State Comptrollers' Report in 2009, discussing the burial problem in Israel, the Ministry of Religious Services and the hevra kadisha began promoting dense burial, and even subsidizing these types of graves.

High-density burial consists of solutions of three sorts: "double burial," in which two bodies are buried in one grave (mostly couples ) by means of digging deeper; "high burial," which creates a multi-story building but preserves the principle of field burial and "Sanhedrin burial," in which the dead are placed in niches purpose-built into walls.

High-density burial in Israel comes with a series of planning constraints. Thus, for example, the architects must create a connection between the earth placed inside the grave and the ground of the site. Additionally, there are clear restrictions concerning contact between the greenery and the graves and concerning the distance between the graves.

Tel Regev cemetery near Haifa.
Hagai Fried
A rendition of the vertical cemetery that will be built on Har Hamenuhot.
Yechiel Komet