Petah Tikva – At first glance, the multi-tiered jungle of concrete off a major central Israeli highway does not appear unusual in this city of bland high-rises. But the burgeoning towers are groundbreaking when you consider its future tenants: They will be homes not for the living but rather the dead.
With real estate at a premium, Israel is at the forefront of a global movement building vertical cemeteries in densely populated countries. From Brazil to Japan, elevated cemeteries, sometimes stretching high into the sky, are providing the final resting place for thousands of people. They are now the default option for the recently departed in the Holy Land.
After some initial hesitations, and rabbinical rulings that made the practice kosher, Israel’s ultra-Orthodox burial societies have embraced the concept as the most effective Jewish practice in an era when most of the cemeteries in major population centers are packed full.
“The source of all this is that there is simply no room,” said Tuvia Sagiv, an architect who specializes in dense burial design. “It’s unreasonable that we will live one on top of the other in tall apartment buildings and then die in villas. If we have already agreed to live one on top of the other, then we can die one on top of the other.”
The Yarkon Cemetery on the outskirts of Tel Aviv has been his flagship project. As the primary cemetery for the greater Tel Aviv area, its traditional burial grounds are at near capacity with 110,000 graves stretched across 150 acres. But thanks to an array of 30 planned vertical structures, Sagiv said the cemetery will be able to provide 250,000 more graves without gobbling up any more land, providing the region with 25 years of breathing room.
“It takes some getting used to,” he admitted, as he stood on the roof of the first completed 70-foot-high (22-meter-high) building, “but it just makes the most sense.”
For now, the interior of the gray buildings looks mainly like a construction site. They feature circular ramps, and a terrace-like facade with vegetation. Each floor has openings on the sides for fresh air to get in.
Cemetery overcrowding presents a challenge the world over, particularly in cramped cities and among religions that forbid or discourage cremation. The reality of relying on finite land resources to cope with the endless stream of the dying has brought about creative solutions.
The world’s tallest existing cemetery is the 32-story high Memorial Necropole Ecumenica in Santos, Brazil. In Tokyo, the Kouanji is a six-story Buddhist temple where visitors can use a swipe card to have the remains of their loved ones brought to them from vaults on a conveyer belt system.
Versions of stacked cemeteries already exist in some shape or form in places like New Orleans and across Europe, in Egypt’s Mountain of the Dead, in China and in the amphitheater-like Pok Fu Lam Rd Cemetery in Hong Kong.
But the future will likely look more like the ambitious plan of Norwegian designer Martin McSherry for an airy cemetery skyscraper that looks almost like a gigantic honeycomb with triangular caverns.
Other plans for cemetery towers have been presented for Paris and Mumbai. In Mexico City, another big project has been proposed: the Tower for the Dead, which will combine a vertical necropolis and an 820-foot-deep (250-meter-deep) subterranean complex. In China, Beijing residents have been provided subsidies to buy space in vertical cemeteries.
But only in Israel does the phenomenon appear to be part of a government-backed master plan. Aside from those who have already purchased their future plots, individual outdoor graves are no longer offered to the families of the more than 35,000 Israelis who die each year.
The first space-saving option is to put graves on top of each other – separated by a concrete divider – and have a shared headstone. This is common among couples and even whole families, and every new pit dug in Israel has room for at least two graves in it. The second option is stacking the dead above ground into niches built into walls, a bit like in a morgue, but adorned with headstones. The third, and most revolutionary option, is to be buried in a building where each floor resembles a traditional cemetery, without the blue sky above.
For this upheaval to take off in Israel, though, the blessing of the rabbis was needed. Israel’s rabbinical authorities oversee all burials of Jewish Israelis.
The Jewish burial ritual is based on the passage in Genesis in which God banishes Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden: “For dust you are – and to dust you shall return.” Jewish law stipulates that all bodies be buried separately on a layer of dust and earth.
Yaakov Ruza, the rabbi of the Tel Aviv burial society, a semiofficial organization that oversees Jewish burials, said the new forms of burial have been endorsed by leading Jewish ultra-Orthodox figures.
The towers, for instance, have pipes filled with dirt inside their columns so that each layer is still connected to the ground. In many ways, Ruza said the new types of burial represent a return to the Holy Land’s ancient origins of burying inside caves and catacombs.
“This is an artificial cave,” he said. “Once they used to build a cave into a mountain. Now we are taking these artificial caves and turning them into a mountain.”
Jerusalem’s burial society even has plans to dig an actual underground cave to find more room for the dead.
Proponents say the new system is more sustainable, environmentally friendly and user friendly – providing a more comfortable visiting experience.
But resistance has emerged from a public wary of change. In one famous case, a bereaved family threatened a cemetery official that if their loved one was put in a wall they’d put the official in a wall too.
Shmuel Slavin, a former director-general of Israel’s Finance Ministry who put together a report on the country’s burial crisis, said there is no reason for such an emotionally fraught overhaul of an ancient tradition. He believes there is enough space in outlying areas, such as the vast Negev Desert in southern Israel, to build new cemeteries.
He said technological advances could allow more burials in existing cemeteries, and that the new “dead cities” will be expensive to build and maintain.
But the bottom line, he said, was that people just don’t want to be buried that way. “People don’t want to hear about it,” he said. “There is a matter of tradition here. People want to be buried like their parents.”
Officials say that those who insist on traditional burial will still have that option; they’ll just have to drive a little further and pay for it. Cemeteries, they say, are not designed for the dead but rather for the living who want to visit them. The hope is that by attending funerals, people will be exposed to the new system and learn to appreciate its upside.
Either way, burial officials say a growing number of people understand that change is inevitable.
“We are all in favor of burying in the open field so long as it does not infringe on our lives. So if there is no more room to build homes in Jerusalem, I prefer burying in layers,” said Chananya Shahor, manager of the Jerusalem burial society. “God gave us land for living, not for dying.”