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No Grounds for Burial

Tzippy Yarom and Rachel Ginsberg

In a country where real estate is premium, Israeli cemeteries are running out of room. Traditional in-ground interment is what people naturally envision when they imagine eternal rest in the Holy Land, but they might be shocked to learn that stacked, vertical burial in above-ground structures is how the country is alleviating the subterranean housing crisis.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

When the Israeli government convinced the families of last winter’s Paris supermarket attack to bury the victims in Eretz Yisrael, it wasn’t as simple as the chevra kaddisha made it sound. After the families refused to have their loved ones buried in above-ground multistory graves for free, the burial society agreed to give them in-ground burials at Har Hamenuchos for NIS 50,000 (about $13,000) apiece — the cost of a Jerusalem burial for non-Israelis. The Ministry of Religious Affairs eventually had the fee waived, but the painful incident underscored a largely unknown issue regarding burial in the Holy Land: If you want a traditional in-ground burial, it will cost you — and that’s providing there’s an available plot.

For the living, the housing crisis in Israel is no secret: Skyrocketing real estate prices coupled with the government’s tightfisted policy toward releasing available lands mean Israeli families and young couples are grateful when they have an affordable roof over their heads. But there’s a subterranean real estate crisis too, and one that will affect every Israeli — and every Jew throughout the world who hopes to be buried in Israel after 120 years.

Since the 1960s, there has been a growing awareness of Israel’s limited burial space. In Jerusalem back then,HarHazeisimwas in Jordanian hands, the Sanhedria cemetery had limited space, and even the new cemetery of Har Hamenuchos, opened in 1951, was filling up. Eventually the next hill, known asHarTamir, was added, and todayHarHamenuchoshas about 170,000 occupied graves. There are another 70,000 graves onHarHazeisim, which reverted back to Jewish hands after 1967, but is still plagued by Arab vandalism and violence.

But while Israel has vast stretches of sprawling spaces, land allocated by the government for cemeteries is limited, and with about 35,000 people buried every year in the country, not only is Har Hamenuchos running out of plots — but so are cemeteries in another 20 cities around the country. All over Israel, cemeteries are no longer opening their gates to traditional in-ground burials, and in, Jerusalem, where burial is in highest demand, its three main cemeteries — Sanhedria,HarHazeisimandHarHamenuchos— are already near capacity. Plans to build another Jerusalem regional cemetery nearMaalehAdumim(which is over the Green Line) were vetoed by a fierce opposition claiming the cemetery would violate international rules governing use of land in “occupied territories.”



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