Israel at war'There's glory in showing up. So that’s what I’ve been doing'

As Israel buries its dead, volunteers honor them by digging their graves

At the largest cemeteries, funerals have been held day and night, requiring teams of volunteers to prepare fresh graves

Graves prepared at the Mount Herzl military cemetery in Jerusalem, October 8, 2023. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90
Graves prepared at the Mount Herzl military cemetery in Jerusalem, October 8, 2023. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90

In the military section of a central Israel Yehud cemetery, Racheli Konstantyn has been volunteering for the past week as a gravedigger.

She tells The Times of Israel this is a new experience for her, and that until now she’s only ever been in a cemetery for a funeral, and not for the surrounding preparations.

However, after Hamas’s infiltration of Israel and brutal massacre of some 1,300 Israeli civilians and soldiers on Saturday, October 7, a call went out across the nation for volunteer gravediggers to assist in the overwhelming amount of work.

At the largest cemeteries, funerals have been held day and night over the past week, requiring teams of volunteers to prepare fresh graves. Google docs were sent out on community WhatsApp groups and it wasn’t unusual for empty 2 a.m. slots to be filled within minutes in the race to honorably bury the dead.

Konstantyn explains that the process of digging the graves is straightforward.

“Upon showing up [at the cemetery], there was a bulldozer cutting through the cement floor, as well as shovels, and bags. Once they had cut through the cement, we started digging, putting the dirt into bags to be set aside and reused for the burial itself.”

Racheli Konstantyn (second from left) and other volunteer grave diggers work throughout the night in Yehud following the October 7, 2023, infiltration from Gaza. (Racheli Konstantyn)

But while the physical work itself may be uncomplicated, the feelings that come with it are anything but.

Asked how she copes with the emotional challenges that come with a job such as this, she explains that she finds her strength in the people fighting on the front lines, and from the victims and survivors of Hamas’s barbarism.

“Emotionally, for me, I’ve been feeling like nothing can compare to what the real heroes are going through and the real horrors people are experiencing,” she says.

“Because of this, any volunteering I do, which would otherwise have an emotional impact on me, seems incomparable and even easy,” says Konstantyn.

“I think since the war began, I’ve been in protection mode, which requires a stable mind,” Konstantyn reflects, “and I think that only later will my body begin to emotionally process everything that has been happening.”

Digging graves is just one of the many ways in which Israelis and Diaspora Jews have been donating their time and effort over the last week, with thousands lining up to donate blood, food, or even opening their homes up to displaced people from the south of the country.

Graves prepared at the Mount Herzl military cemetery in Jerusalem, October 8, 2023. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90

Asked why she felt it was important that she give her time to the country in the wake of tragedy — and in such a physically and emotionally demanding way — she explains her belief in showing up for others.

“There’s no glory in volunteer work, there’s no glory in war, there’s no glory in death,” she says seriously. “There is, however, glory in unity and compassion. There is glory in showing up. So that’s what I’ve been doing.

“Whether through sitting in traffic for an hour to go to a funeral I wasn’t allowed to enter because too many people, tens of thousands of people, showed up after a post was sent out by the family, worried there wouldn’t be a minyan; whether through packing food and supplies; whether through digging graves,” she enumerates. “We need to show up for one another.”

While volunteers worked in Yehud to ready graves, Israel’s largest military cemetery Mount Herzl, located in Jerusalem, was described as hosting “revolving door” funerals. As one fallen soldier’s service ended, another would begin. But by Sunday afternoon, only the rows of fresh graves testify to the losses of the last week.

Wreaths cover the recently dug graves of fallen soldiers on Mount Herzl, in Jerusalem, October 15, 2023. (Shira Silkoff)

As rain spits down from the overcast sky, the cemetery is quiet, and the only signs of last week’s volunteer work are the bags of dirt lining the perimeter of a patch of ground that had been all but empty just days ago.

The story of rushed preparations for dozens of funerals can be seen in the folding tables full of bottled water, the stacks of plastic chairs and the hastily taped-up directions.

All of this paints a picture of just how many grieving families and friends have passed through the cemetery over the last week.

Each grave is covered in a mound of bouquets, wreaths and rocks, and a small handwritten sign at each plot marks the name and personal army ID number of each of the fallen soldiers.

Over time, these burial plots will be built up to match the rest of the cemetery. Blocks of Jerusalem stone will be added to each grave, rough on the edges and polished to perfection above. The names and ages of the fallen will be carefully etched along the surface, along with a few words or a quote chosen by their loved ones.

But for now, they are simply mounds of dirt, and the grief and love of those who knew them can be seen in handwritten notes, small pictures and mementos, and of course, wreaths of colorful flowers, bright against the muted sky.

The area is mostly deserted, and almost silent. A woman walks quietly between the rows, eyes red, and as she walks away, her hand is pressed tightly to her chest. Nearby, a man stands next to a grave, trying to light a memorial candle while protecting it from the wind.

Most Popular
read more: