Burial 2.0: In a Box or on the Third Floor With an A/C and an Elevator

By 2048, Israel will need 1.4 million new graves. Some want to revive Second Temple-era burial in boxes. Over my dead body, says Rabbinate

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Underground burial spaces, Jerusalem.
Underground burial spaces, Jerusalem. Credit: Gil Cohen-Magen

For the last few years, Israeli planners have been trying to address weighty issues such as where and how over the coming decades to house the country’s growing population, which by 2048 is expected to hit 16 million. Israel will need to add 1.5 million homes to its stock by then. But what about the dead? Places for an estimated 1.4 million of the deceased will also need to be created by that year.

“Unlike with residential buildings, cemeteries can’t undergo urban renewal to increase density. These are vast spaces that take up thousands of dunams, and they’re there forever – therefore, it’s an issue that requires serious strategic thinking,” says Racheli Koleski, head of national infrastructure in the Israel Planning Administration, and the person in charge of tackling the problem.

“Aside from the question of land and space, which are in tremendously short supply in the center of the country, you have to consider that people don’t go to cemeteries beyond two generations back. In other words, people will at most visit the graves of their grandparents, and over time thousands of deserted graves that no one visits keep accumulating,” she says.

The thousands of dunams that Koleski cites can’t be precisely measured since in Israel there are more than a few illegal cemeteries. However, even taking into account the total area occupied by the large legal cemeteries (a minimum of 20 dunams), that amounts to about 6,500 dunams – nearly double the area of the town of Givatayim.

“The areas that are already taken are often in the heart of high-demand residential areas. If we have to choose between giving a dunam to the living or to the dead, we should give it to the living. It makes more sense to allocate land for the sake of the public and for residential space and to be more efficient with the land that is designated for burials,” she says.

State of emergency

A view of Har Hamenuchot Cemetery in Jerusalem. Running out of space above ground. Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

The land shortage for burials is not something new, and the state comptroller will soon publish a report on the subject. But in recent years the realization has set in that it is nearly a state of emergency. In less than 10 years there will be no burial plots left in Tel Aviv and the center of the country.

“In Greater Tel Aviv there is no new land designated for burials, and except for the space that is still open at Hayarkon Cemetery, there are no land reserves at all in Gush Dan for burials,” says Rabbi Avraham Manela, chairman of the Hevra Kadisha Forum and director of the Tel Aviv Hevra Kadisha. “In Israel, everyone is entitled to free burial (including Gush Dan residents, who may be buried for free in a cemetery in that district), but a few years from now, this will all be over. The government has already advanced different solutions to increase the density, but the turn was too sharp. There are plenty of people who refuse to be buried using the new methods, and I’ve received threats about it more than once.”

The sharp turn Manela is referring to is the replacing of traditional “field burials,” which are considered particularly wasteful of land. When you dive into the planning terminology concerning burial, you find that it isn’t all that different from that of the housing market. The growing housing density in city centers and new neighborhoods applies to cemeteries. Just as Israel is trying to squeeze more housing units on each dunam, it wants to increase the number of graves per dunam.

That has given rise to several mega-projects. At Hayarkon Cemetery, for example, 10 structures for “saturation burial” that will hold 100,000 graves are being built at a cost of about a billion shekels ($290 milion). That will enable 1,500 burials per dunam, five times the current standard of 300 in a field burial.

The buildings will have elevators and offer three interment options: field burial, raised family interment (on a concrete slab resembling a balcony) and Sanhedrin burial (in burial halls, with the deceased inserted into a niche on a special slab). Most of the structures being built at Hayarkon will be four stories and contain 10,000 interment spaces each.

Another approach is being taken in Jerusalem, where tunnels 1.6 kilometers long and 16 meters deep were excavated beneath the Har Hamenuhot Cemetery. The project, called Minharot Olam, is considered the first underground cemetery of its kind in the world. Its impressive catacombs can accommodate 24,000 interments. A light will automatically turn on whenever a visitor pauses by a grave, the site will be outfitted with advanced ventilation and cleaning systems, and it will be more wheelchair accessible than the older cemeteries.

Burial in a ‘library’

The underground cemetery under construction in Jerusalem. Large red and orange glass balls are hung at intersections in the burial ground. Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

The housing shortage for the dead in the center of the country is due to the fact that the large cemeteries in Holon and Kiryat Shaul have already run out of space, so that burials are all done now at Hayarkon Cemetery. The cemeteries in Rishon Letzion, Yehud and Rosh Ha’Ayin are also almost entirely used up. And at the same time, while everyone agrees about the need for more burial space, no local authority head is eager to promote more burial sites within its jurisdiction.

And so, the Barkat regional cemetery – which was meant to hold 270,000 graves and to serve Tel Aviv, Ramat Gan, Givatayim, Holon, Bat Yam, Bnei Brak, Azur, Givat Shmuel, Kiryat Ono, Or Yehuda, Shoham and the Modi’in district – has had planning approval since 2003, but has never been developed.

Given the situation, lately there has been a lot of discussion about an unusual, old-new method of burial being considered by the Planning Administration with the aid of outside researchers and consultants. Known as “secondary burial” or “bone collecting,” the deceased’s bones are removed from the grave after a prescribed period of time and transferred to storage in a kind of archive where they are neatly arranged in boxes and kept in a building resembling a library.

One enthusiastic supporter of the idea is Dr. Yair Furstenberg of the Hebrew University Talmud Department, who notes that this practice was common during the Second Temple period. Despite the psychological difficulty many people may have with it, she says it can be very advantageous in terms of space and cost.

“Everyone can see that, beyond the land shortage, the cost of burial in these new structures is high,” says Furstenberg. “The cost of multistory burial is 12,000 shekels, but the families of the deceased don’t pay this, so what is happening in effect is that those who purchase expensive field burial plots for tens of thousands of shekels are subsidizing those who are buried in the new buildings, in multilevel burial. “

In the Second Temple period, Jews used a two-part practice – the body is placed in one space, and beneath it is a large space in which the family bones are collected later on. The modern version being proposed is that after the person has been buried for a while, his or her bones would be collected and placed in an ossuary, a type of stone box that is 60 centimeters long, 30 centimeters wide and 30 centimeters deep. Such boxes, which would have the birth and death dates clearly noted on them, are portable and could be stored and stacked. Halakhically, such a method is allowable and would achieve a density of 3,500 graves per dunam.

Furstenberg is not alone. Architect Elisha Mor has designed a number of simulations of this kind of burial. “It’s a solution that is supported by the halakha, as written in the Shulhan Arukh. The permanent burial structure is modeled after burial structures found in different places in the country. Alongside the permanent building there is a temporary burial plot for a year that holds 16 graves.

Bargain burial

Construction workers at work on the underground cemetery being built at Jerusalem's Har Mamenuchot. Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

“Using ossuaries, you could bury 3,480 people in a single dunam, or almost 7,000 using the entire area. The estimated cost of burial this way would be just 1,000 shekels a person. Aside from the savings in land and costs, it also makes it possible to have family burial in one place,” he explains.

Ayelet Krauss, an urban planner who once worked in the Housing Ministry’s Department of Urban Renewal, also sees this as a practical solution that the government should consider. “Every time I go to Jerusalem I see the cemetery by the entrance to the city, Har Hamenuhot, and it keeps growing and expanding from year to year – and this is the welcome that Jerusalem offers to its residents. We are shifting to sustainable technologies in practically every field, but cemeteries are not part of this discussion, and their growth is endless,” Krauss says.

Krauss thinks that streamlining in the burial industry should be on a par with the latest standards in the housing market. “The main question is whether it’s possible to create a halakhic and sustainable cemetery. This is the guideline that we follow in planning any other element of a city that people use, whether it’s a residential building, a community center or a public space. It’s true that cemeteries have been changing and there is construction going on, but it is massive construction. Their landscape appearance is problematic, and ultimately more and more of these buildings will have to be built.”

But while the idea advocated by Krauss and Furstenberg was positively received, at least theoretically, by the Planning Administration, the rabbinic establishment has been less enthusiastic. Last week, the Planning Administration held a day-long seminar on the subject entitled “The Next World of Burial,” which was attended by people from the Religious Services Ministry and Finance Ministry, as well as by Rabbi Yuval Cherlow of the Tzohar rabbinical organization and Rabbi Rafi Ostroff, chairman of the Gush Etzion Hevra Kadisha.

The administration’s plan to discuss the “bone-collection” method drew significant protest from representatives of the Chief Rabbinate, which sought to cancel the discussion. In a letter of clarification from Rabbi Yaakov Rojza, a member of the Chief Rabbinate Council who was supposed to take part in the discussion but canceled his participation, said that the Planning Administration has no authority to discuss changing the burial method and that “only the Chief Rabbinate of Israel is authorized to discuss this.”

Will the periphery save the day?

“They’re talking now about a return to the burial methods of the Second Temple era, but not everything that was suitable for the days of the Second Temple is suitable today,” says Manela. “What about the slave trade? That was also around in the Second Temple time. I deal with the burial of about a third of the deceased in this country and I know the public well, and I can tell you that this discussion is purely theoretical. The density today is already about 600-percent higher than it was in the past. People are using scare tactics and saying that all of Gush Dan will be graves, but that’s wrong. With a sensitive topic like burial, you can’t go for radical solutions, because we’ll end up back at the starting point and the public will demand a return to field burial.”

But isn’t that just a fixed way of thinking that could change, just as perceptions about multilevel burial have changed? Manela isn’t persuaded. “The difference is that multistory burial had the support of the Chief Rabbinate from the beginning, even if it took the public some time to get used to it. The bone-collection solution does not have that support and won’t ever have it, so I don’t see it happening.”

Until new solutions are found, it seems the Planning Administration will be looking to build regional (rather than municipal) burial sites, and the shortage of land in the center of the country means they will have to rely heavily on more outlying areas.

Plans have been filed for two regional cemeteries in the north: one in Carmiel to serve Carmiel, the Merom Golan Regional Council and the Misgav Regional Council, and one in Jedida-Maker to serve the Arab population there as well as the Arab population from Acre and Kafr Yasif, and the Jewish population of Acre.

“We are exploring all the possibilities and want to hear what else can be done to streamline the handling of this subject,” says Koleski . “Beyond the plans being advanced in the periphery, we are also advancing a tender in the central region to identify more land that could be used for burial. When the new government is formed, this is one thing that we will energetically pursue.”