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Jerusalem is Running Out of Room for the Dead

A new project looks to save space by building modern catacombs

(Marcel Malherbe/Arcaid/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

There’s another real estate problem brewing in Jerusalem. In fact, some of the most sought-after real estate in the city is not livable at all — because it’s in the city’s packed graveyards. Now, report The Washington Post’s William Booth and Ruth Eglash, Jerusalem is running out of room for the dead. To try and pack more people in the city is building an underground “city of the dead” instead.

The problem stems from the Jewish tradition that the resurrection of the dead will start in Jerusalem, Booth and Eglash report — a belief that has made a Jerusalem cemetery ZIP code extremely desirable for Jews worldwide. But few cemeteries are able or willing to make room for new graves. Now, a burial organization and construction company have partnered on an ambitious $50 million project that could start a catacomb trend.

If you associate the word “catacomb” with scary, cold dark crypts, you’re not alone. In the catacombs beneath Paris, for example, tourists can tour dark tunnels and discover piles of skulls and walls of bones that are centuries old. But Booth and Eglash report that the 21st-century catacombs will have a few modern twists. The multiphase project will include tunnels, elevators and three tiers of crypts with “soft lighting, beautiful stonework, and an airy, dry, cool and peaceful climate.”

Jerusalem isn’t the only city struggling to figure out what to do with its dead. Earlier this year, The Guardian’s Ana Naomi de Sousa reported on worldwide efforts to find more resting places for the deceased — a quandary that has sparked innovations like floating graveyards and virtual cemeteries. It's not that there isn't space in the world for the dead, but rather that there isn't space in places where the dead want to be buried. 

Hananya Shachar, director of the Jerusalem Jewish Community Burial Society, tells Booth and Eglash that he hopes his idea will help Jerusalem solve its burial problems in a way that works for the living and the dead. He hit on the idea decades ago when he wondered when room would run out. The first phase of the project will include 22,000 vaults and is expected to fill within seven years.

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