• Workers carve through the rock at the underground burial site deep below Jerusalem.
  • Workers carve through the rock at the underground burial site deep below Jerusalem.

Tunnelling into Israel’s subterranean city of the dead

opinion December 07, 2017 01:00

By Agence France-Presse

As a storm of controversy howls above, silence reigns in Jerusalem’s catacombs

Under the serene and silent hills of Jerusalem’s largest Jewish cemetery, a team drills into stone to create a vast underground burial site, melding modern technologies with ancient concepts.

A shortage of burial space in Jerusalem along with the requirements of Jewish law have brought together religious undertakers and a tunnelling expert to create the new underground complex.

When completed, it will contain thousands of new graves set among state-of-the-art lighting, elevators and ventilation systems, at a cost of some 200 million shekels ($57 million, 48 million euros).

Officials overseeing the project call it the first of its kind in the modern world. 

On a recent day, heavy equipment gnawed away at the stone under the plots of Har Hamenuhot, Jerusalem’s largest Jewish cemetery on the city’s western outskirts.

Traditional Judaism requires the deceased to be buried in earth, as per the verse in the Bible’s Book of Genesis about man’s inevitable “return to the ground”, and prohibits moving the interred.

Finite land resources have forced religious burial societies, known as Hevra Kadisha, to find solutions.

In recent years, cemeteries have installed burial walls and other types of structures.

But the situation in Jerusalem is perhaps more dire than elsewhere.

It is where, according to Jewish belief, the resurrection of the dead will commence at the end of times.

As a result, Jews from around the world have striven throughout history to have their remains laid to rest in Jerusalem, creating a huge challenge for the city’s burial societies.

“We can’t keep up with the demand for cemetery space,” says Yehuda Bashari, of Hevra Kadisha Kehilat Jerusalem, which is responsible for some 60 per cent of Jewish burial plots in the city, “hence the idea of underground burial”.

Around 22,000 graves

Bashari’s organisation had long considered the idea of an underground site, but nothing came of it until one of Israel’s top tunnellers could no longer stand the sight of Har Hamenuhot endlessly expanding on a hill overlooking the highway to Tel Aviv.

“Every morning I’d drive in and see the cemetery,” says Arik Glazer, CEO of Rolzur Tunnelling, which is also carrying out digging for the city’s new central train station. “It just looked bad.” 

Glazer had heard of a paper written at Israel’s prestigious Technion Institute of Technology about underground burial spaces and “formulated an idea for how to solve the problem”.

They started digging in 2014.

In a vast underground hall, labourers wearing helmets and fluorescent vests operate a massive drill to pierce a hole into its wall, sending fine dust flying.

Around them, similar holes stretch in neat rows along the wall and up to the ceiling.

When it is finished, the underground complex is to contain 22,000 to 24,000 graves in a series of interconnected hallways spanning over a kilometre and a half.

People can lay their relatives to rest in the ground in the centre of the tunnels, but also in their wall – directly in the stone or in a styrofoam structure made to look like it.

A continuum of earth will exist throughout the styrofoam structure, surrounding each grave and ensuring the Jewish principle of burial.

Burial in stone was used by Jews over 2,000 years ago and appears in early rabbinic literature, Bashari noted, stressing that the various types of burial in the complex all conform with orthodox Judaism.

The tunnels are set to see their first burials in the first half of 2019.


More ‘land for the living’ 

Bashari, who is in charge of the project for his burial society, says it has served to put space above ground to better use.

“We’re freeing up 30 dunams [seven acres] of land that should serve the living, rather than the dead,” he said.

Bashari calls the underground cemetery the first of its kind in modern times and says it has defined the “standards for tunnel burial”.

Glazer said it has generated interest in other cities worldwide suffering the same problem.

The undertaking was a finalist at the International Tunnelling and Underground Space Association 2017 awards in its category, ultimately won by a Hong Kong project earlier this month.

Israel’s government did not help finance the project, with the money coming from Bashari’s Hevra Kadisha as a result of non-Jerusalem residents willing to pay significant sums for the privilege to be buried in a Holy City plot.

Rabbi Hillel Horowitz, director general of the Jerusalem council of cemeteries, praised the initiative, which, combined with other projects, would provide some 100,000 graves that could supply demand for the next 25 years.

“We need every solution based on Jewish law to provide for Israel’s burial needs,” he says.

Rabbi Seth Farber, whose ITIM organisation provides advice and help on adherence to Jewish practice, said relatives of recently deceased are at times shocked to see new burial methods.

“There hasn’t been enough education, and because of that people are often taken aback by the alternatives that exist today,” he says. 

To him, the long-term solution would have to be to move cemeteries out of cities to sites “that are not near densely populated areas”.

“We need to provide more for the needs of the coming generations than we do for the metaphysical needs of those who have passed,” he says.