Innovative Israeli Burials Save Land Resources

image-multilevel-tomb A multi-level tomb in Tiberias, Israel, shows how one space may house the remains of several family members.

In Judaism, respectful care of human remains entails burial of the whole body – discussed in our previous post. Islam’s funeral requirements are almost identical. (See Zaufishan’s post on Moslem conventional and sea burial.) Use of land resources for cemeteries is indeed diminishing everywhere, and in Israel, a tiny country that could comfortably fit into the dimensions of New Jersey, the problem is becoming acute. Maurice discussed the advantages of burial at sea, but we agree it’s unlikely to become fashionable in Israel. And without efficient burial methods, cemeteries will soon crowd living people out, especially in big cities like Tel Aviv.

Commenter Esther Hecht pointed us in the direction of innovative Israeli solutions in the quest for sustainable burials.  The concept is called dense burials, and is the project of architects Uri Ponger and Tuvia Sagiv.

Dense burials include multi-level graves like the one pictured above; apartment-style buildings where each floor contains many graves; terraced graveyards and use of abandoned quarries for hillside burials. All have been sanctioned by the Israeli Rabbinate and are regularly used.

In an interview with Green Prophet, Ponger said,

“In 1968, I was finishing my architectural studies in Germany. My professor, Egond Eirman, discussed the problem of space for burials with the class. He told us that corpses would lie in morgues for weeks sometimes, until space was found or made to bury them.”

Returning to Israel, Ponger teamed up with Sagiv to specialize in dense burial. Old graves carved into hillsides, and remains of crypts, show that the ancients appreciated land as a resource to sustain. Taking inspiration from them to a modern level, Ponger and Sagiv created a system of niche graves built into hillsides in multiple tiers. This  video clip (narration in Hebrew) shows a typical burial using this concept. An interesting feature is the re-usable coffin.

“Each ethic group has its own way of conducting a burial,” says Ponger. “In Jerusalem, there are 11 different burial societies – one for Persian Jews, one for a certain chassidic group,  one for Modern Orthodox people, etc., – but all agree that, halachic requirements being met, dense burial is permitted.

Re-cycling graves, where the bones are gathered a year after burial and placed in crypts, is not permitted at this time. I believe, however, that in future generations this will be the only solution to space-efficient burials.”

The dense burial idea has impressive results.  Conventional “field” burial acomodates 250 graves per dunam. With dense burial, as many as 1000 graves can fit on (or in) the same space. Ponger and Sagiv also say that dense burial sites cost the government more to develop initially, but in the end cost less to operate and maintain.

image-niche-tombsNiche tombs in Jerusalem.

More cheerful news on death and dying on Green Prophet:

Photo of multi-level tomb by hoyasmeg via Flickr.

:: Esther Hecht


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7 thoughts on “Innovative Israeli Burials Save Land Resources”

  1. Yonit Gefen says:

    Taking off on the idea of vertical burials( or to a lesser degree horizontal)— if the dead body is sealed, encased in concrete or stone and sealed why does it need to be in a cemetery. I suppose there are those that will think I am strange for suggesting this but why not use
    6 foot long cases inside stone as arches, as part of a buildings, a gigantic magen david, or chanukah menorah or work of art. My husband and like the idea of being inside a tall arch.

    For the one year burial crowd. I saw this at the monastery Santa Katarina in Sinai before it was returned to Egypt, There were i believe 6 graves. Each time a monk died they dig up the ‘last in’ body
    took it apart and had rooms of body parts.. a skulls only room for example. Very creepy

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  3. Interesting article. But what you have not considered is vertical burial.

    Image: the space of a traditional grave (about 2.5m x 0.75m = 1.88 sq.m) for a single person’s body could accomodate about 8 bodies, if each were lowered vertically (say in a biodegradable tube) into the same space.

  4. This is really fascinating. Thank you. I’m imagining a “city of the dead” – a whole city full of apartment buildings turned graveyard!

    1. Miriam Kresh says:

      Tafline, yes, the drawing of the project really does remind one of a necropolis.

  5. Esther Hecht says:

    Nice article, Miriam. I’m glad you picked up the idea.
    I don’t know how quickly Israel will adopt the ancient idea of gathering bones to make room for new burials, but it would certainly help solve the space crunch. That kind of gathering may be what was meant by the biblical phrase “gathered to his fathers.”

    1. Miriam Kresh says:

      Thank you, Esther. It’s been an interesting piece of research.
      Hm, had never thought to take that phrase in a literal sense!

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