Israel faces grave outlook for burial space

JERUSALEM (Reuters Life!) - Israel is running out of space to bury its dead.

Graves are seen at the Tel Aviv cemetery of Kiryat Shaul July 28, 2009. Israel is running out of space to bury its dead. REUTERS/Gil Cohen Magen

Since the Jewish state’s creation 61 years ago, cemeteries across the small country have been filling up with graves. Cremation could be an option, but ritual Jewish law bans the practice. So plots are at a premium and space is tight.

At the entrance to Jerusalem, one of the city’s largest cemeteries now juts out and touches the highway as an eerie reminder to all passing by just how little land is available.

A government-appointed committee is looking to the past for a solution for the future -- proposing, in its words, “high-density burials.”

Back in Biblical times, it was common for the dead to be laid to rest on top of each other in underground crypts.

The space-saving idea was resurrected about 20 years ago by Israeli architects Tuvia Sagiv and Uri Ponger.

They approached Israel’s Chief Rabbinate, which oversees Jewish burials, and showed it pictures of tombs in which members of an ancient judicial council, the Sanhedrin, were buried.

The Rabbinate liked the idea, as long as strict religious guidelines were followed.

“This system was used in the days of the Sanhedrin and the Jewish authority. We are just renewing something that existed in the past,” said Israeli Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger.

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In the cramped Tel Aviv cemetery of Kiryat Shaul, a new four-story structure stands almost majestically beside the tens of thousands of graves that are packed as close as dominoes.

The building is shaped like a hill with flowers and shrubbery growing on its outside walls. Inside, there is space for 5,000 corpses, about four times the number that could be buried in traditional graves within the boundaries of the plot.

On each floor, spacious halls are lined with rows of burial chambers stacked about three high. The rooms are bathed in sunlight and a constant crosswind ensures a pleasant atmosphere. Several rows of chambers are already filled and others reserved.

In their design, Sagiv and Ponger had to address the rabbis’ concerns that the burial chambers would be built in accordance with Halacha, or Jewish ritual law.

Each chamber has a dirt floor, with a dirt column running all the way to the ground below, fulfilling the Jewish edict that burial spaces must be connected to the earth, Sagiv said.

Cement walls separate each chamber, in line with the Jewish tenet to bury the dead as individuals.

“We were not sure if it will succeed or how people will react,” Sagiv said. “But people liked the place. There is a nice atmosphere and you can see that many families have already chosen to reserve spots.”

Similar structures are being constructed in major cities across Israel. Sagiv said one multi-floor “burial hill” will be built into the walls of an old stone quarry and the entire area will be landscaped.

The Chief Rabbinate oversees the funerals each year of about 35,000 Jews who die in Israel and about 1,500 who are flown in from around the world, ensuring that those who choose are buried according to Jewish law.

Dozens of graveyards in Israel have already closed their gates to new burials. Non-Jews, who make up a minority in Israel, are buried in separate cemeteries, where there currently is no land crisis, officials said.

Editing by Ron Askew