Buried close to the sky

‘In the haredi cemeteries in Prague or Vienna you can sometimes find four or five layers of deceased upon deceased. It is a longstanding custom, close enough to our roots.’

The Yarkon Cemetery project on Gefen burial hill (photo credit: PENGER SAGIV ARCHITECTS)
The Yarkon Cemetery project on Gefen burial hill
Three buildings, sandstone bricks, windows with no glass. “Up there, right up there,” says Avi, pointing to the third row. “Maybe you can even see the ocean from there,” he adds with a smile. Today his grandmother, Edith, will be buried, all the way up on the top floor.
Resting in peace should be easy there, at least according to Tuvia Sagiv, an Israeli architect and designer who has specialized in the design of burial spaces.
“If we don’t mind living right on top of each other, why shouldn’t we also die upon one another?” Sagiv says, addressing a worldwide trend that has found its way to Israel: vertical cemeteries. The Yarkon Cemetery on the outskirts of Tel Aviv is the pioneer project: 22 meters high, three floors, three towers.
Sagiv and colleague Uri Ponger proposed high-rise cemeteries as a solution for Israel’s burial crisis already in 2001; in 2016 the towers were finally finished.
“The Yarkon Cemetery will accommodate around 250,000 new graves,” he says.
“That gives us a buffer of about 25 years.”
Just as in any densely populated country, Israel is facing a problem of overpopulation by the dead. The deceased need space. If population growth continues at the same pace, the global total will amount to some nine billion people in just 40 more years, with the majority settling in urban areas. Already there are 26 so-called mega cities – like Mexico City, Tokyo and Seoul – with more than 10 million inhabitants. And of course, people not only live in cities; they also die there.
In Cairo’s “City of the Dead” neighborhood, half a million inhabitants share their kitchens and living rooms with burial chambers and hang their laundry on tombstones. In Santos, Brazil, the skyscraper called Memorial Necropol Ecumenica has 14 floors, a restaurant and several gardens for meditating and mourning. The tower has been the inspiration for similar construction projects, such as Mumbai’s Moksha Tower, designed by the Illinois Institute of Technology, which will provide eternal resting space for adherents of four religions. Muslims and Christians may conduct terrestrial burials, while Hindus may scatter the ashes of cremation in an artificial river, and Zoroastrians conduct their prayers in a special tower of silence.
Countries in Western Europe such as Switzerland, the Netherlands or Germany avoided a similar graveyard crisis only by reusing graves. Land plots can only be leased and not bought. After around 20 to 30 years, graves are recycled for new bodies – unless relatives agree to pay a relatively high fee for further tenancy. Islam and Judaism accept neither reuse nor cremation, making the issue all the more pressing for the tiny State of Israel.
“According to Jewish faith, a grave cannot be used twice or moved to another space,” explains Sagiv. Contrary to Christian practice, in Jewish tradition graves remain forever, until the coming of the Messiah, when the deceased will rise to be judged; the physical mass therefore has to be left unharmed. Jewish burial ritual is based on the Book of Genesis (3:19): “For you are dust and to dust you shall return” clearly forbids any burning of the body. Islam similarly stresses a close connection between body and earth. Sura 20:55 states: “From the earth we created you and into it we shall return you.” The dead must be placed in their haj pilgrimage cloak, resting on the right side and facing Mecca.
In Israel, the Hevra Kadisha burial societies, which oversee all Jewish burials conducted in the country, agreed to address the problem.
“People are always sensitive whenever small changes are made in burial traditions,” says Rabbi Yaakov Ruza of the Tel Aviv Hevra Kadisha. “But the practice of burying deceased upon deceased has been approved in Israel by all the main rabbis.”
According to Ruza, there is a set of rules one must always take into account when building multilevel cemeteries according to halachic rulings. First, there must be a layer of at least 30 cm. of earth between the dead, and second, this layer must be grounded in the soil of Earth.
“If this is respected, multilevel graveyards are fully equal to the usual burial grounds; there is no doubt about it in the religious community,” he says.
While cremation may be even more space-efficient, it consumes a lot of energy and irreversibly harms the environment: the burning of dental fillings makes up 15% of mercury emissions in industrial countries.
Companies like Capsula Mundi offer an alternative. The Italian start-up invented so-called burial shells made out of starch, in which corpses are placed alongside the seed of a tree. The body’s natural decomposition nourishes the seed, so that rather than a tombstone, a tree will honor the deceased.
“Graveyards will become living forests,” says Capsula Mundi designer Anna Citelli. “We avoid non-recyclable tombstones and expensive wood production. We save space, create ecospheres and speed up the natural decomposition of the human body.”
Some provinces in Canada, Alberta foremost among them, have completely done away with wooden coffins, contrary to the common Christian custom. The “Green Burial” program promotes burial in only a shroud, as in traditional Jewish practice, and a simple wooden coffin. With the help of GPS coordinates, family members can locate their loved ones without need for a tombstone, only a smartphone.
IT COMES as no surprise that on the densely populated islands of Japan matters are handled in a more futuristic fashion.
On the six floors of the Kouanji Temple in the heart of Tokyo, relatives may view the ashes of the deceased – inside a LEDlit Buddha statue – with a simple swipe of a membership card and the help of a conveyor belt. A company called Nirvana already exports its technology to Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia, among others.
Traditionally, Japanese families would own one graveyard plot that was shared by all relatives, but due to low birthrates and rising property costs, the current generation often cannot afford to procure and maintain a piece of land. Places like the Shinjuku Rurikoin Byakurengedo Temple, designed by the architect Kiyoshi Sey Takeyama, cater to this need.
The white, spaceship-like building has turned death into a precisely calculated procedure. The six floors contain praying rooms, concert halls, a temple and a conveyor-belt system, this time designed by the automobile manufacturer Toyota. There is even a colossal, digital photo frame displaying pictures of the deceased once the urn is delivered.
In China the costs for a private, single grave exceed the financial capabilities of the ordinary citizen. Plots in Hong Kong cost the equivalent of NIS 157,000, and there is a minimum five-year waiting time. The architects of Bread Studio thus felt forced to rethink burial practices and suggested moving burials outside the city limit. A cruise ship with the capacity of 370,000 urns is supposed to circle eternally on underwater tracks in front of the city’s gates. The ship’s construction allows the addition of further levels.
“Construction has not yet started, but the necessary investors have already been found,” says Bread Studio founder Paul Mui. Twice a year the so-called Floating Eternity is to return to the marina for maintenance.
“Some Chinese regard us with suspicion,” Mui explains. “Taking into consideration current plot prices, a burial on a ship might be economical, but according to our tradition a grave should be still, fixed and immovable.”
Mui hopes that cultural preconception will adapt to pragmatic needs: “The Floating Eternity moves on tracks in a steady circle around the city. It is only moved by the current of the waves. Therefore, at least in my opinion, you can regard it as an everlasting pendulum instead of a direction-oriented move.”
The construction of the multilevel graveyards in the Yarkon Cemetery likewise demanded that Jewish law be reinterpeted: laid within the towers’ walls are earth-filled pipes, assuring the higher floors are always seamlessly connected with hallowed ground. Moreover, the design is based on pre-Christian times, when burial was done in mountain caves.
“Until today there are cemeteries in the Jerusalem area that are carved into the mountains and where people are practically buried on top of each other,” adds Rabbi Ruza. “In the haredi [ultra-Orthodox] cemeteries in Prague or Vienna you can sometimes find four to five layers of deceased upon deceased. It is a long-standing custom, close enough to our roots.”
Avi, too, feels this is close enough to the original practice: “The only difference is that now you do not have to climb up the mountain to the caves to see your loved ones. Now you simply take the elevator.”