Land-short Israel weighs underground cemeteries


September 28, 1993|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Jerusalem Bureau

JERUSALEM -- Writer Alexander Pope once contemplated an idyllic final resting site:

Yet shall thy grave with rising flowers be dressed,

and the green turf lie lightly on thy breast.

Uh, hold the flowers. Hold the turf. The latest proposal for burying the dead in Israel contemplates something less pastoral: an underground condominium complex for graves.

"The problem is we are short of land for conventional cemeteries," said Professor Yisrael Lin, one of the staff members at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa who devised the plan.

They envision a cemetery facility burrowed underground, probably into the side of a hill in elevated cities such as Jerusalem or Haifa. Inside would be a multilevel complex, with hallways and large rooms. The dead would be inserted into vaults in the walls, one above another.

"Like drawers," Dr. Lin explained.

"It saves area," said Professor Michael Burt, a colleague on the plan. "Every person on his burial [now] takes with him 4 or more square meters, as a permanent possession.

"We can't live with that," he said, no pun intended. "Israel is a small country, and most of the population is concentrated in a few certain areas. The densities already are overwhelming."

Many of the cemeteries in Israel once were on the edges of cities. But urban sprawl has hemmed them in. The land is expensive and needed.

New cemeteries cannot be outside population centers. Relatives want to easily visit the graves, and funeral processions would get caught in commuter traffic jams, said Dina Rachewsky, director of national planning for the Ministry of Interior.

Other alternatives are out. What Dr. Burt delicately calls the "more compact solution" of cremation is disallowed in the Jewish religion. So is reburial or moving a cemetery. Once planted, Jewish corpses are supposed to stay put until the Messiah comes, he said.

The solution is to dig down. Dr. Lin said it is not a new idea. Jews and other religions in the Middle East long ago used burial caves, some of which included elaborately dug caverns.

The proposal for these grave condominiums is no pipe dream. Two government ministries financed the study, and team members are down-to-earth professionals. Dr. Lin is head of the Mineral Engineering Research Center at Technion; Dr. Burt is dean of the Faculty of Architecture. Panel members included other architects and civil engineers.

Dr. Lin envisions a "room and pillar" construction, typical of coal mines, in which rooms are dug out around standing pillars. The burial vaults could be in the pillars, he said.

"It wouldn't look like a coal mine," he said, but the similarity would have other advantages.

"It could be used as an atomic bomb shelter, or a chemical bomb shelter," he said. "In the Middle East, you may need that."

BTC Dr. Lin asserts that it is an economical proposal.

"In a conventional graveyard, you can get 250 graves per 1,000 square meters," he said. "With this, you could put 9,000 graves under the same space. It's much cheaper."

And stone carved out in the making of the facility could be sold, he said.

Dr. Burt acknowledged that it may require a "psychological breakthrough" to get people used to such a facility. He said this can be done with architecture.

"The prototype has to be right," he said. "You should have really lofty big spaces, good illumination, maybe some shafts through the ceiling for natural light, pavement, hygienic conditions. I think it shouldn't be depressing."

If it catches on, though, there could be some unexpected problems, Mrs. Rachewsky noted: "Who will have the penthouse, and who will have the fourth floor?"

And she muses that the facility could get caught up in a squabble like the one she swears she heard recently. In Israel, where buying a cemetery plot is considered a luck charm for long life, a husband bought his wife a burial place for her birthday.

But when her next birthday came, the husband gave her no gift. The wife, miffed, demanded an explanation.

"But honey," he replied, according to Mrs. Rachewsky. "You haven't yet used the gift I gave you last year."

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