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Why the future of urban cemeteries is underground

As cemeteries run out of space, cities are returning to the ancient tradition of building catacombs

Reading Time: 2 minutes

An alternative burial

In many cities around the world, there’s a severe shortage of available land for burial sites. So what happens when major cities simply run out of space?

This is the situation in Israel, where non-Jews are buried separately. Many graveyards across the country are full up and are closed to new burials. They typically already have graves on two or more levels in multi-storey structures that resemble car parks.

In Israel’s capital city, Jerusalem, the biggest cemetery is called Givat Shaul with around 250,000 graves. It already has multi-level graves but, to cope with increasing demand, it’s now taking a different approach.

It has developed a new site: Minharot Olam (Perpetual Tunnels), the first phase of which is now complete. This underground structure is set to become Jerusalem’s primary burial ground, with 70% of the city’s burials carried out there.

The catacombs

The catacomb consists of a series of mile-long, concrete-lined tunnels which have a total of 24,000 gravesites. Ventilation pipes 2 metres in diameter pump air in and out of the complex.

Some of the tunnels are as high as 16m. Along their walls are rows of human-sized chambers, on nine levels, that are dug into the rock. The tunnels are lit by LED lighting; where they intersect they are lit by an amber glow from stained-glass lights designed by artist Yvelle Gabriel.

At the center of the burial site is a massive 16-story shaft, excavated into a hillside. This provides the main entrance for mourners visiting the site. Inside, the locations of the graves are shown on a phone app so that families can find them. Visitors enter by lift and then walk around the tunnels or ride around on golf buggies.

Work on the complex began in 2012. It cost $85m to build, being funded by the Kehilat Yerushalayim burial society. The Society bans cremation and requires the deceased to be physically connected to the earth so that bodies can return to the ground.

That’s why each grave either lines a wall or touches the floor, with holes drilled in the concrete linings to connect graves to the bedrock.

The tunnels are 50m below the existing graveyard and take up only 5% of the available space – and that’s just on one level. When all the graves are filled in 100 years or so, another (bigger) layer will be opened up 50m below the existing one.

At Maplebrook Funeral Plans, we offer a range of great-value funeral plans. Contact us on 0800 059 0909 on to find out more.

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