Why Jerusalem Is Building an Underground ‘City of the Dead’

Construction of underground cemetery in Jerusalem | © Courtesy Rolzur / SIPA / REX / Shutterstock
Picture of Lior Kantor
Updated: 15 December 2017
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Despite having developed several multi-storey burial structures in locations around Israel over the past few decades, the need for extra burial sites in the country is still growing. An Israeli burial society has recently initiated a 50 million dollar one-of-a-kind underground burial compound in Mount Shaul in Jerusalem.

What is it anyway?

The compound, named Har HaMenuchot, which is Hebrew for ‘The Mountain of the Deceased’, will contain over 22,000 crypts, out of which over 10,000 will have individual graves, which is about four times more than the overground burial site has at the moment.

Workers inside the massive partially constructed underground burial tunnels
© Courtesy Rolzur / SIPA / REX / Shutterstock

Why is it needed?

According to the Jewish tradition, as opposed to other religions, life is considered sacred, while death is usually disregarded in day-to-day life. Therefore, burying the dead is considered a ‘mitzvah’, and cremation is viewed as disgracing the dead.

Since cremation is uncommon in Israel, tradition takes great consideration to the burial of the deceased. That is especially true to Jerusalem, which according to the tradition will be the first place for the dead to rise when the Mashiach appears, and this makes for a competitive market of burial real estate and consequently, a need to come up with a solution. The creative idea to build an underground compound into the mountain, to be operated by Chevra Kadisha, one of the main burial societies in Israel, draws inspiration from the Roman Catacombs, along with the desire to become more effective both in use of space and in the environmental impact of burial customs.

Workers looking inside one of the burial shafts
© Courtesy Rolzur / SIPA / REX / Shutterstock

How will it work?

While the whole beehive-like compound will be accessible by foot or by golf carts, the main shaft of the site, which is dug 50 metres (164 feet) deep into the ground, will have 3,000 graves spanning over four walls. It will be reachable by three lifts, with each one accommodating 30 people at a time. In addition, the design includes a small museum on the bottom level, in which archaeological artefacts related to Jewish burial traditions will be on display.

Openings in the mountainside will allow penetration of sunlight, along with the innovative lighting and cooling systems that will be installed at the site.

Underground burial tunnels project at the Givat Shaul Cemetery, Har HaMenuchot, in Jerusalem
© Courtesy Rolzur / SIPA / REX / Shutterstock

The initial establishment of the site, which will provide about 6,000 graves, will be followed by more, to be opened over the next few years. The project may be joined by additional burial groups in Israel, which have expressed interest in the project.

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