Saving space in Israel with cemeteries in the sky

High-rises for the dead
High-rises for the dead

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    High-rises for the dead

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High-rises for the dead 01:17

Story highlights

  • Israel is joining other population-dense areas to build "vertical cemeteries"
  • Jewish law doesn't allow for cremation
  • China, India, Brazil also use this kind of burial
With a tiny land mass relative to its 8.2 million residents, the state of Israel is running out of room to bury its dead.
So it's joining an unconventional trend led by other densely packed areas: Instead of burying the dead below the earth, it's building up.
"The idea is to create cemeteries for multilevel burial," says Tuvia Sagiv, who with his partner, Uri Ponger, is the architect behind 30 "high burial buildings" planned for the already crowded Yarkon Cemetery outside Tel Aviv. "There is simply no room."
Each structure will be 70 feet tall. Together they will make up what is known as a "vertical cemetery."
Leading rabbis and the Israeli Ministry of Religious Services have even declared the stacked cemeteries kosher, due namely to clever architecture by Sagiv and team.
"We're not allowed to cremate the bodies or move the bones, so this is best way."
Jewish burial law is based in part on a passage in Genesis "For dust you are -- and to dust you shall return." Jewish law stipulates that the dead be buried separately on a layer of dust and earth.
So while there is no restriction on multilevel burial, each body must rest on soil.
To comply with religious law, the towers of the vertical cemetery structures have pipes filled with dirt inside their columns so that each layer is still technically connected to the ground.
"A body is laid on earth, connected to the earth," Sagiv says, "so the building is full of earth, every body we put inside will be on the earth."
Despite acceptance by rabbis and the chevra kadisha, Israel's ultra-Orthodox burial societies, there are some Orthodox Jews who aren't happy with the structures.
"They prefer to do things in a traditional way," Sagiv says, but he maintains that his structures are in some ways the most traditional. "It is the same as thousands of years ago when the Jewish people created burials in caves one on top of the other."
Today's vertical structures have terraced sides with plants and landscaping, openings on the sides for fresh air, but coverage for visitors in inclement weather or the beating sun.
It provides "a closeness and a connection between the living and the dead," Sagiv says.
In Israel, the idea of vertical cemeteries is growing. At the end of November, the chevra kadisha will hold a conference with the Ministry of Religious Services to discuss Jewish burial rules, and specifically vertical cemeteries such as the structures in Yarkon Cemetery.
"The buildings will provide a solution to the problem of lack of burial space for more than the next two decades," says Itay Goor, a spokesman for Chevra Kadisha of Greater Tel Aviv.
While the idea may seem odd to some, vertical cemeteries already exist where populations are dense and land is scarce, such as in China, Japan, Egypt and even New Orleans, where high waters make burial difficult.
Brazil is home to the world's tallest vertical cemetery, the Memorial Necropole Ecumenica in Santos, which is 32 stories high. In India, the Moksha Tower building will be split up into different sections for the four main religions practiced in Mumbai, and will be even taller.