Israel's Burial Societies Outline Tunnel Vision for Cemeteries

Two huge burial tunnels are currently being built in Jerusalem, capable of containing 600 graves, in a bid to combat cemeteries' shortage of space.

Ilan Assayag

Sometimes going backward, to the customs of our ancient forbears, can also be a step forward. That’s the case with two huge burial tunnels currently being built in the Har Hamenuchot Cemetery near the western entrance to Jerusalem. The experimental project is aimed at reducing the amount of valuable land wasted on cemeteries without getting into fights over halakhic (Jewish religious law) requirements.

The two tunnels, the first of their kind in modern Israel, are the opening stage of an ambitious project planned by Kehilat Yerushalayim, a Jerusalem hevra kadisha (religious burial society). They are expected to be ready for use early next year.

Each tunnel is 60 meters long and can contain 300 graves, according to Hananya Shahor, the burial society’s director.

The project was unveiled on Sunday at a conference for all of Israel’s hevra kadishas. The conference addressed a variety of professional issues, ranging from the identification of casualties during last summer’s war in Gaza to new burial methods.

One of the issues discussed was a problem that has worried the hundreds of burial societies, plus government agencies, the Israel Land Authority and the state comptroller for years – the shortage of land for cemeteries.

“The nature of burial won’t remain as it has been for the last 30 years,” Deputy Religious Services Minister Eli Ben Dahan told the conference.

Every year, some 35,000 Jews are buried in Israel, about a tenth of them in Jerusalem (Muslim and Christian cemeteries are run by their own religious authorities rather than the hevra kadishas). One solution to the growing shortage of land has been multistory burial buildings, in which bodies are buried in niches in the walls. This allows bodies to be “stacked” on top of each other, while also ensuring that each has its own distinct grave.

But while such buildings have sprung up in cemeteries in all the major cities in recent years, there is still an argument over whether Jewish law actually permits this form of burial. Rabbis from the “Lithuanian” community – the non-Hasidic branch of Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox Jewry – say it doesn’t, so Jews from this community can’t be buried in this fashion.

Moreover, because the practice is culturally unfamiliar, many others also object to their loved ones being buried in multistory buildings. Thus, it is primarily used by people who can’t afford a traditional grave site.

In tunnel burials, though, by definition all the graves are underground, so there’s no dispute that this complies with Jewish law, said Shahor. In fact, he noted, tunnel burials were common back in the days of the talmudic sages, some 2,000 years ago.

Moreover, these graves will be affordable to all, since the National Insurance Institute will cover the full cost, just as it does for niches in multistory burial buildings. In contrast, the NII no longer covers the full cost for traditional graves.

Eventually, Kehilat Yerushalayim plans to build 22,000 tunnel graves in Har Hamenuchot. Most of them will be reserved for Jerusalem residents, but 10 percent will be available to people from outside Jerusalem.