And so it has come to pass that an Israeli burial organization has teamed with a cutting-edge construction firm to bore deep under a mountain here to create a vast underground necropolis — with elevators.
The first phase of the new subterranean city of the dead will include 22,000 crypts, arranged floor to ceiling in three tiers, in a network of intersecting tunnels now being dug through the rocky clay soil beneath Jerusalem’s largest cemetery.
The $50 million project, begun a few months ago and paid for with private funds generated by the sale of burial plots — mostly to Jews overseas — is the first of its kind here in modern times. And it is likely to be the start of a trend.
Modern catacombs may soon be the preferred option — or the only realistic one, in a delicate balance of economy, space and piety.
The need is dire. Perhaps surprisingly, there are only a handful of Jewish cemeteries in Jerusalem still accepting new arrivals.
The private Sanhedria Cemetery in the center of town is almost full (and expensive at $20,000 a plot, according to some Israeli reports).
Har Hazeisim, at 3,000 years old, is the most famous and most profound, has the best views and is especially desired for its prime location.
There are complications, however. Vandals have been desecrating Jewish tombs in recent years. Burial directors say the location is not quite as coveted as it had been.
Which leaves Har Hamenuchos. It is the city’s largest cemetery, opened in 1951, a sprawling city of stone covering a hilltop on the western edge of Jerusalem and one of the first landmarks a traveler sees while driving into Jerusalem on Highway 1 from Tel Aviv.
“We need our land for the living and not for the dead,” said Hananya Shachar, director of the Jerusalem Jewish Community Burial Society, who said he first dreamed of digging burial caves 25 years ago, when he saw how quickly demand was outstripping supply. In Israel, nonprofit burial societies manage assigning and selling plots and helping the bereaved plan funerals.
There are about 522,000 Jews living in Jerusalem and 6 million Jewish Israelis in all. Another 8 million Jews, more or less, live around the world. That is a lot of potential demand.
If they go subterranean, the possibilities for new spaces are nearly limitless. There are more than 6 million remains in the catacombs of Paris, for example. The Roman catacombs were dug during the 2nd century for the same reason Jerusalemites are burrowing today: They were running out of room.
“Now we’ve got the drilling equipment, the know-how and the means, so we said, ‘Let’s go for it,’ ” Shachar said.
Shachar pointed out that not only do Jews around the world want to be buried in Jerusalem, but also the soil is good for digging, making his dream of caverns doable. In Tel Aviv and in much of the settled coastal lands, it is not possible; you hit water within a couple dozen yards.
At the cemetery on a recent day, Shachar showed how overcrowding is driving new solutions. The burial society is clearly running out of space for “field graves,” the traditional plots side by side on the mountaintop. “Those are finished,” he said.
“This is amazing, nothing like it, at least in the world of Jewish cemeteries,” said David Jacobson, an American in the burial business who came from New York to take a look at the project.
“The future is underground,” agreed Yair Maayan, project manager for the new burial tunnel project. “This is all about how to make better use, smarter use of the land.”
Maayan predicted: “We can fill the 22,000 vaults in seven years.” After that? “We will dig deeper and deeper, all over the mountain.”
Read more at the Washington Post.