Architects help solve the burial-space crunch in Israel

When Erna "Esther" Sachs died in Jerusalem last spring, she was laid to rest alongside her husband, Arieh. To ensure her place beside him, she had bought her plot when he died in 1980.

But such accommodations are becoming a rare luxury in Israel. So when Isidor Langerman's wife joins him in eternal rest in Haifa, they will lie in a perpetual embrace in a single grave.

The land crunch in Israel, with 6.4 million inhabitants in an area about the size of New Jersey, has made it one of the most densely populated countries in the world. Now the squeeze is forcing planners to come up with new solutions for accommodating the dead.

How critical the problem is can be seen from the burial needs of greater Tel Aviv. Because zoning restrictions limit the size of cemeteries and use of the land around them, conventional (field) burial over the course of one lifetime (75 years) would require more than 10 square miles, or half the area of the city. In just one lifetime, there would be no more room for the living.

The problem is most acute among the country's Jews — about 81 percent of the population — because of the religion's requirements, says Jerusalem architect Uri Ponger.

"In Judaism, a grave is 'forever,' that is, until the coming of the Messiah, because the body itself will be resurrected with all its bones and organs and, until then, must repose in nature."

Large cities in Europe have found partial solutions to their burial problems by leasing graves for fixed periods and then reusing them if the lease is not renewed.

In Israel, neither reuse of graves nor cremation is an option. So Ponger and Tel Aviv-based architect Tuvia Sagiv have specialized in dense burial, encouraged by a recent decision by national planners that urban cemeteries built on state land must allow for higher density.

"There are many historic precedents for dense Jewish burial in Eretz Yisrael," Ponger says. In the third century C.E., for example, Beit She'arim in lower Galilee became a central burial place for Jews of the area and from the diaspora, who were laid to rest in catacombs cut into the soft rock.

In modern times, Israel's first dense burials took place about eight years ago.

"There is a psychological barrier," Ponger admits, but in the past year more than 2,500 people have been buried in this way.

The architects' simplest solutions include interment of two family members in a single grave that is dug an extra 3 feet deep. They have also designed above ground niche burial, in which the niches are pre-cast concrete units.

But their most important innovation — one they say is unique — is the multi-level cemetery. It allows for single and double conventional graves as well as niche burial, on at least two levels.

In combination, these burial methods allow for a quadrupling of burial density. At the same time, the landscaped outer slope of multi-level cemeteries makes them aesthetically pleasing green areas.

An ambitious design is to transform the eyesore of a disused quarry in Bareket, 10 miles east of Tel Aviv, into a lush green area. This vast new cemetery cluster could meet the burial needs of Tel Aviv and surrounding areas for the next 30 years.

The architects' designs have even gone beyond the borders of the country. In association with Los Angeles architect Robert Levonian, they have added multi-level burial as an option at Mount Sinai Memorial Park in Los Angeles.

In keeping with a recent ruling of Israel's High Court of Justice, 10 percent of the new cemeteries will be allocated for non-Orthodox burial, to accommodate both secular Israelis who do not want a religious ceremony and those whose burial today is problematic because their Jewishness is in doubt.

"But no crosses will be allowed on the graves in this section," Ponger says. To gain approval for their designs from the Chief Rabbinate, which controls burial practices, Ponger and Sagiv had to meet strict religious requirements.

Though there is no prohibition against burial in tiers and no limitation on the number of tiers, each body must rest on soil and there must be 21 to 22 inches between bodies in every direction.

In multi-level burial, one side of each level must be in contact with a natural extension of the ground. The architects started working on dense burial independently and reached solutions as different from each other as the two men's lifestyles.

Sagiv, born in Belgium in 1947, comes from a religious background and studied at Haifa's Technion-Israel Institute of Technology.

Ponger, born in Israel in 1936, is strictly secular and studied at Vienna Technical University and Karlsruhe University of Technology in Germany.

Encouraged by the Israel Lands Administration, which is interested in reclaiming problematic tracts like disused quarries, the architects have designed cemeteries or cemetery extensions from Akko in the north to Beersheva in the south.

Though development costs are higher for dense burial, Ponger says, "when land value is factored in, it is more economical than field burial."