'It's a matter of supply and demand'

Underground cemetery project looks to the past for the graveyard of the future

Nominated for international award, Israeli tunneling company building 22,000-grave catacomb beneath capital’s largest Jewish graveyard to alleviate burial space shortage

Renee Ghert-Zand is the health reporter and a feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Rendering of underground cemetery under construction in Jerusalem. (Courtesy of Rolzur)
Rendering of underground cemetery under construction in Jerusalem. (Courtesy of Rolzur)

A project currently underway in Jerusalem to build the first underground cemetery in Israel in millennia is a finalist for an International Tunnelling and Underground Space Association (ITA-AITES) award to be announced November 15 in Paris.

The cemetery is in a tunnel underneath the capital’s largest graveyard, Har Hamenuhot, in the Givat Shaul neighborhood at the western edge of the city. It is a nominee in the “Innovative Underground Space Concept” category focusing on solutions for growing urban population centers with limited space for conventional growth.

Upon its projected completion a decade from now, the underground cemetery will accommodate the burial of 22,000 bodies. Some tombs have already been reserved in the 12-tunnel subterranean complex, designed with three floors, elevators, central air conditioning, and soft lighting.

Heavy tunneling equipment equipment is used in construction of underground cemetery in Jerusalem. (Courtesy of Rolzur)

With undeveloped real estate scarce and at a premium in Israel’s urban centers, there is nowhere for burial grounds to add more “field” graves. As a result, Israeli cemeteries have sprouted vertically in recent years. Ultra-Orthodox rabbinical authorities specializing in Jewish burial rights have approved above ground vaults, as well as sprawling terraced structures, such as one at the Yarkon cemetery outside Tel Aviv featured in a 2014 Times of Israel report.

Seven years ago, Arik Glazer, general manager of Rolzur, an Israeli tunneling company, began thinking that Israel’s burial space shortage could be solved by going down rather than up.

Driving to Jerusalem daily for work, Glazer grew tired of passing the sprawling Har Hamenuhot as he entered the city along Highway 1. Israel’s largest cemetery, it currently has more than 150,000 graves.

“As people approach the capital every day, they have to go by dead people. I didn’t like this, and I wanted to think about a solution,” Glazer told The Times of Israel.

This Oct. 6, 2014, photo shows a new vertical part of the Yarkon cemetery outside of the city of Petah Tikva, Israel. (AP/Dan Balilty)

Rolzur had worked on major highway and railway projects, as well as some secret assignments for the Israeli government, but it had never tunneled into a mountain to build a necropolis. However, in 2010, Glazer came across a 1992 article at the Technion in Haifa summarizing technical aspects of historical underground burial sites in Israel.

Glazer continued his research by visiting the ancient catacombs in Rome and Paris, as well as the large system of Jewish burial caves carved out of soft limestone dating to the 2nd century CE at Beit Shearim in northern Israel.

Glazer applied some of his own ideas to his findings and did concept drawings. He sat on his proposal for several years, until showing it in 2014 to the Jerusalem Jewish Community Burial Society, which had been looking for alternative solutions to the burial space problem.

“We need our land for the living and not for the dead,” burial society director Hananya Shachar said in 2015 to the Washington Post.

“Now we’ve got the drilling equipment, the know-how and the means, so we said, ‘Let’s go for it,’ ” he said in response to Glazer’s proposal.

Rolzur managing director Arik Glazer gives Chief Rabbi of Israel David Lau and others a tour of the underground cemetery under construction in Jerusalem. (Courtesy of Rolzur)

According to Glazer, the $50 million tunneling and construction project is being paid for entirely by the burial society, with no funding from the Israeli government.

“It’s a 10-year project, which Rolzur is financing. We expect the actual construction to take seven years to complete,” Glazer said.

With Israelis’ burial costs covered mainly by National Insurance, the burial society is banking on Diaspora Jewry seeking burial in Jerusalem to pay for the subterranean plots. Going for $5,000-$10,000, they are less expensive than the few remaining field plots in the capital, which command up to $20,000.

“It’s a matter of supply and demand,” said Rabbi Yosef Blau of Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary of the high costs.

Financial issues aside, Blau would not hesitate to encourage an American Jew considering eternal rest in Jerusalem’s new underground cemetery.

Drilling equipment creates burial spots in the walls of underground cemetery under construction in Jerusalem. (Courtesy of Rolzur)

“Jewish burial in caves goes back to biblical times. There is no halachic [Jewish law] problem with this as long as the burial is in the ground. And I couldn’t imagine that the people running Har Hamenuhot would be doing this in a questionable way,” Blau said.

C., a Conservative Jew living in the Philadelphia area who plans to be buried in Israel, thinks the underground cemetery is a great idea.

“As long as it is halachic , I am all for it. I would not want to see more land taken away from living space,” she said.

C. does not have a particular desire to be buried in Jerusalem, and she hopes that before she dies such cemeteries will be built in other parts of the country — preferably in areas close to where her late relatives are interred.

Chicago-based organizational systems coach Pearl Mattenson’s maternal grandparents are buried on Jerusalem’s Mount of Olives, an unrealistic option for Mattenson and her husband. A Modern Orthodox Jew, Mattenson is open to being interred anywhere in Israel, but she is slightly skittish about the catacomb concept.

Ultra Orthodox Jews visit graves at the Mount of Olives (Photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Ultra-Orthodox Jews visit graves at the cemetery on the Mount of Olives, September 2012. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“It freaks me out a bit, but it doesn’t change my mind ultimately about being buried in Israel. I’ll just have to get used to the idea of my kids having to go underground to visit my grave, which seems a little oppressive,” she said.

According to Glazer, around 65 percent of the necessary excavation for the Jerusalem cemetery has been completed. He expects the first 6,000 burial spots to be ready within a year and half.

“Many people are waiting to see it working. I think it’s going to open doors for other solutions here in Israel and also abroad. For instance, they have a huge burial space problem in Hong Kong,” he said.

Glazer is excited to present Rolzur’s project at the ITA Paris gathering this week.

“Many people avoid talking about death. Some are in shock when I speak at engineering conferences about what we are doing in Jerusalem,” Glazer said.

But with death the only sure thing in life, Glazer is determined to keep digging for viable burial solutions.

“Life starts with a tunnel and ends with a tunnel,” he said.

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