Catacombs of Jerusalem: Massive Burial Tunnels Constructed Under the Capital

Overcrowding at Jerusalem's Har Hamenuchot cemetery has burial organizations planning multi-storied graves with an unusual construction material: Styrofoam

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Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

With 4,000 deaths a year it is no wonder that the largest cemetery in Jerusalem, in Har Hamenuchot, is filled beyond capacity. This is the location with the most dire residential property shortage in town.

Now that hundreds of thousands of graves have filled every corner of this mountain, the Hevra Kadisha burial organization has resorted to planning multi-storied burial, on four to six levels. In tandem, it has also started burying people in niches carved out from the rocky walls. New structures are currently being erected to accommodate 26,000 additional graves, but this too will not suffice to address the shortage in burial space.

Thus, an underground project is taking shape, with the construction of gigantic tunnels. The first funerals are expected to take place there in a year. In the coming decades 22,000 graves are expected to fill these tunnels. These two solutions, the new buildings and the tunnels, are expected to solve the problem for the next 12-14 years. The graves will be made of Styrofoam.

There is hardly any doubt that in the distant future most of Jerusalem’s dead will be interred in underground tunnels. This unusual drilling and construction project will continue and expand so that in 100 years there will be an immense necropolis under the mountain. “With all due respect for the dead, the land above ground is intended for the living,” says Yehuda Bashari, technical manager of Hevra Kadisha, which is building this project, during a tour. Two weeks ago the project received recognition at an international competition of underground construction projects, held in Paris.

The project will consist of large tunnels totaling 1.3 kilometers in length, with a height and width of 15 meters. At the center of the system of tunnels, a large vertical shaft will descend 16 floors from the mountain top to the tunnel level. Along the walls of this shaft, 3,000 graves will be built. Access will be provided by elevators, stairs and balconies.

At the bottom of the shaft will stand a small museum describing burial practices during ancient times. Hevra Kadisha officials note that burial tunnels are not foreign to Judaism. In fact, that was the preferred method of burial during the Second Temple and Mishna periods. Nevertheless, several ultra-Orthodox communities in Jerusalem are refusing to have their dead buried in niches, and it is likely that tunnels will be objected to as well.

Burial in these tunnels will be done in one of three ways: regular burial in the tunnel floor, burial in niches to be built in a different structure adjacent to the walls, where the rock-face allows this, and burial in niches drilled directly into the walls. Hevra Kadisha estimates that niches in natural rock will be the preferred choice even among the ultra-Orthodox who oppose the built niches. In each tunnel there will be four rows of niches, in separate structures or drilled into the walls. The fourth row will be inaccessible and serve people with no family or people who donated their bodies to science.

The tunnels will be entered by elevators in the central shaft or through a tunnel opening on the southern side of the mountain. People will move inside by walking or by using electric carts. The graves will be marked and put in an application that will make it easier for families to find their loved ones, a task which is not simple these days either.

A wall in the Styrofoam catacombs at Har Menuchot cemetery in Jerusalem, December 2017.
A rendered illustration of how the Styrofoam catacombs at Har Menuchot cemetery in Jerusalem will look after they are completed.

The Styrofoam graves will be built from a patent held by Ronen Portal, who developed a Styrofoam container which can be assembled quickly, forming the space into which a body can be inserted. Bashari says Styrofoam is cheap, easy to put together and non-degradable for at least two million years. He says that this enables simpler construction of the structure holding the graves. The graves will be impermeable to the outside, but will have some opening to connect them to natural earth.

“There was no planning for something like this, we had to contend with problems of accessibility, fire hazards, moving people around and escape routes,” says Bashari. “We wrote the book on this. The idea was that people won’t feel they are in a tunnel. I instructed the lighting engineer to provide enough light so that someone arriving with a small book of psalms will be able to read it.”

Styrofoam slabs at the construction site of new catacombs at Har Menuchot cemetery in Jerusalem, December 2017.