Israel raises the dead with skyward cemetery

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Israel raises the dead with skyward cemetery
This Oct. 6, 2014, photo shows a new vertical part of the Yarkon cemetery outside of the city of Petah Tikva, Israel. With real estate at a premium, Israel is at the forefront of a global movement building vertical cemeteries in densely populated countries. The reality of relying on finite land resources to cope with the endless stream of the dying has brought about creative solutions. (AP Photo/Dan Balilty)
This Oct. 14, 2014, photo shows hundreds of graves at the overcrowded Bashoura cemetery for Muslim Sunnis in Beirut, Lebanon. The congested city of more than one million is cramped with cemeteries wedged into residential areas, increasingly forcing families to bury several members of the same family in one grave. Available land plots are extremely scarce and what is left is being used by developers to build luxury office towers and apartments. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)
In this Oct. 14, 2014, photo, a Lebanese man, center, walks between graves at the overcrowded Bashoura cemetery for Muslim Sunnis in Beirut, Lebanon. The congested city of more than one million is cramped with cemeteries wedged into residential areas, increasingly forcing families to bury several members of the same family in one grave. Available land plots are extremely scarce and what is left is being used by developers to build luxury officers towers and apartments. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)
In this Oct. 14, 2014, photo, a Lebanese man, center, walks between graves at the overcrowded Bashoura cemetery for Muslim Sunnis in Beirut, Lebanon. The congested city of more than one million is cramped with cemeteries wedged into residential areas, increasingly forcing families to bury several members of the same family in one grave. Available land plots are extremely scarce and what is left is being used by developers to build luxury officers towers and apartments. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)
This Oct. 14, 2014, photo shows hundreds of graves at the overcrowded Bashoura cemetery for Muslim Sunnis in Beirut, Lebanon. The congested city of more than one million is cramped with cemeteries wedged into residential areas, increasingly forcing families to bury several members of the same family in one grave. Available land plots are extremely scarce and what is left is being used by developers to build luxury office towers and apartments. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)
In this Oct. 13, 2014 photo, an employee at the Necropole Ecumenica Memorial cleans the surface of crypts in Santos, Brazil. When completed, the five building memorial known as a vertical cemetery will hold 180,000 bodies. (AP Photo/Andre Penner)
In this Oct. 13, 2014 photo, the Necropole Ecumenica Memorial stands tall in Santos, Brazil. When completed, the five building memorial known as a vertical cemetery will hold 180,000 bodies. The reality of relying on finite land resources to cope with the endless stream of the dying has brought about creative solutions. (AP Photo/Andre Penner)
In this Oct. 15, 2014 photo, a woman carries flowers through the Nueva Esperanza cemetery in the Villa Maria shantytown in Lima, Peru. The reality of relying on finite land resources to cope with the endless stream of the dying has brought about creative solutions. (AP Photo/Martin Mejia)
This Monday, Oct. 6, 2014 photo shows a new vertical part of the Yarkon cemetery outside of the city of Petah Tikva, Israel. Cemetery overcrowding is an issue that resonates the world over, particularly in its most cramped cities and among religions that forbid or discourage cremation. After some initial hesitations, and rabbinical rulings that made the practice kosher, Israel's ultra-Orthodox burial societies have embraced the concept as the most effective Jewish practice in an era when most of the cemeteries in major population centers are packed full. (AP Photo/Dan Balilty)
This Monday, Oct. 6, 2014 photo shows a new part vertical part of the Yarkon cemetery outside of the city of Petah Tikva, Israel. Cemetery overcrowding is an issue that resonates the world over, particularly in its most cramped cities and among religions that forbid or discourage cremation. The reality of relying on finite land resources to cope with the endless stream of the dying has brought about creative solutions. (AP Photo/Dan Balilty)
In this Oct. 13, 2014 photo, gravestones are lined up in one section of Washington Cemetery in the Midwood section of the Brooklyn borough of New York, Monday, Oct. 13, 2014. The predominantly Jewish cemetery, founded in 1861, is almost filled to capacity. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
FILE- In this Sept. 9, 2013 file photo, grave digger Juan Luis Cabrera takes a break from his work at the "Nueva Esperanza" cemetery in Lima, Peru. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd, File)
In this Oct. 15, 2014 photo, a woman carries flowers through the Nueva Esperanza cemetery in the Villa Maria shantytown in Lima, Peru. The reality of relying on finite land resources to cope with the endless stream of the dying has brought about creative solutions. (AP Photo/Martin Mejia)
This Oct. 13, 2014, photo shows headstones in Washington Cemetery in the Brooklyn borough of New York. The predominantly Jewish cemetery dates back to the late 1800's and is almost filled to capacity. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
In this Sept. 17, 2014 photo, relatives watch as the body of a mother and sister is exhumed to free up space for a new burial, at a nearly-full San Isidro cemetery in northern Mexico City. The woman's body was to be reburied in her husband's grave in a different area. With cemeteries rapidly reaching capacity in one of the world's biggest cities, families are forced to exhume and remove their relative's remains after a period of several years. Remains unclaimed by relatives may be reburied as unmarked loose bones beneath the fresh grave, or piled with others on exposed altars. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
In this Oct. 13, 2014 photo, two people walk past Washington Cemetery in the Brooklyn borough of New York. The predominantly Jewish cemetery dates back to the late 1800's and is almost filled to capacity. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
In this Oct. 9, 2014 photo, relatives carry a coffin through the National Cemetery in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Cemetery overcrowding is an issue that resonates around the world, particularly in its most cramped cities and among religions that forbid or discourage cremation. (AP Photo/Dieu Nalio Chery)
In this Oct. 14, 2014 photo, gravediggers remove unmarked loose bones from the bottom of a grave as they prepare it for a fresh burial, after removing more recent remains from a coffin for delivery to the family in Mexico City. With cemeteries rapidly reaching capacity in one of the world's biggest cities, families are forced to exhume and remove their relative's remains after a period of several years. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
In this Oct. 14, 2014, photo, a woman walks by the Milluni cemetery at the base of the Huayna Potosi Mountain on the outskirts of El Alto, Bolivia. The cemetery was built in 1965 to bury dozens of miners who were killed, allegedly by soldiers, during the military dictatorship of President Rene Barrientos. Today, the cemetery is used to bury the family members of those miners. (AP Photo/Juan Karita)
In this Oct. 14, 2014 photo, graves decorated with flowers and signposts stand tightly packed together at the nearly-full San Isidro cemetery in northern Mexico City. With cemeteries rapidly reaching capacity in one of the world's biggest cities, families are forced to exhume and remove their relative's remains after a period of several years. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
FILE- In this April 4, 2012, file photo, an elderly man bends over a tomb at a Chinese cemetery during Qingming Festival in Singapore. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E, File)
In this Oct. 15, 2014 aerial photo, cars drive past cemeteries in New Orleans. Due to the high water table of New Orleans, which is just below sea level, water fills a grave as soon as it is dug. Historically, most graves in New Orleans are above ground if they are not concrete reinforced, lest the bodies are pushed to the surface by the water. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
This Oct. 14, 2014, photo shows hundreds of graves at the overcrowded Bashoura cemetery for Muslim Sunnis in Beirut, Lebanon. The congested city of more than one million is cramped with cemeteries wedged into residential areas, increasingly forcing families to bury several members of the same family in one grave. Available land plots are extremely scarce and what is left is being used by developers to build luxury office towers and apartments. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)
In this Oct. 13, 2014 photo, buses drive on a motorway over the Montmartre cemetery in Paris. Cemetery overcrowding is an issue that resonates around the world, particularly in its most cramped cities and among religions that forbid or discourage cremation. The reality of relying on finite land resources to cope with the endless stream of the dying has brought about creative solutions. (AP Photo/Jacques Brinon)
This Oct. 10, 2014, photo shows a general view of cemeteries located in the City of the Dead, a slum where half a million people live among tombs, in Cairo. The reality of relying on finite land resources to cope with the endless stream of the dying has brought about creative solutions. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)
In this Oct. 9, 2014 photo, people use cable cars to commute over buildings containing crypts at a cemetery, in La Paz, Bolivia. Cemetery overcrowding is an issue that resonates around the world, particularly in its most cramped cities and among religions that forbid or discourage cremation. (AP Photo/Enric Marti)
FILE- In this Aug. 13, 2014, file photo, children pray for their ancestors after sweeping their family tombstones at a cemetery in Haiki, Nagasaki Prefecture, southern Japan as they celebrate the Bon Festival. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko, File)
This Oct. 11, 2014, photo shows the Wadi al-Salam, or "Valley of Peace" cemetery in the Shiite holy city of Najaf, 100 miles (160 kilometers) south of Baghdad, Iraq. (AP Photo/Jaber al-Helo)
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PETAH TIKVA, Israel (AP) - At first glance, the multi-tiered jungle of concrete off a major central Israeli highway does not appear unusual in this city of bland high-rises. But the burgeoning towers are groundbreaking when you consider its future tenants: They will be homes not for the living but rather the dead.

With real estate at a premium, Israel is at the forefront of a global movement building vertical cemeteries in densely populated countries. From Brazil to Japan, elevated cemeteries, sometimes stretching high into the sky, are providing the final resting place for thousands of people. They are now the default option for the recently departed in the Holy Land.

After some initial hesitations, and rabbinical rulings that made the practice kosher, Israel's ultra-Orthodox burial societies have embraced the concept as the most effective Jewish practice in an era when most of the cemeteries in major population centers are packed full.

"The source of all this is that there is simply no room," said Tuvia Sagiv, an architect who specializes in dense burial design. "It's unreasonable that we will live one on top of the other in tall apartment buildings and then die in villas. If we have already agreed to live one on top of the other, then we can die one on top of the other."

The Yarkon Cemetery on the outskirts of Tel Aviv has been his flagship project. As the primary cemetery for the greater Tel Aviv area, its traditional burial grounds are at near capacity with 110,000 graves stretched across 150 acres. But thanks to an array of 30 planned vertical structures, Sagiv said the cemetery will be able to provide 250,000 more graves without gobbling up any more land, providing the region with 25 years of breathing room.

"It takes some getting used to," he admitted, as he stood on the roof of the first completed 70-foot-high (22-meter-high) building, "but it just makes the most sense."

For now, the interior of the gray buildings looks mainly like a construction site. They feature circular ramps, and a terrace-like facade with vegetation. Each floor has openings on the sides for fresh air to get in.

Cemetery overcrowding presents a challenge the world over, particularly in cramped cities and among religions that forbid or discourage cremation. The reality of relying on finite land resources to cope with the endless stream of the dying has brought about creative solutions.

The world's tallest existing cemetery is the 32-story high Memorial Necropole Ecumenica in Santos, Brazil. In Tokyo, the Kouanji is a six-story Buddhist temple where visitors can use a swipe card to have the remains of their loved ones brought to them from vaults on a conveyer belt system.

Versions of stacked cemeteries already exist in some shape or form in places like New Orleans and across Europe, in Egypt's Mountain of the Dead, in China and in the amphitheater-like Pok Fu Lam Rd Cemetery in Hong Kong.

But the future will likely look more like the ambitious plan of Norwegian designer Martin McSherry for an airy cemetery skyscraper that looks almost like a gigantic honeycomb with triangular caverns.

Other plans for cemetery towers have been presented for Paris and Mumbai. In Mexico City, another big project has been proposed: the Tower for the Dead, which will combine a vertical necropolis and an 820-foot-deep (250-meter-deep) subterranean complex. In China, Beijing residents have been provided subsidies to buy space in vertical cemeteries.

But only in Israel does the phenomenon appear to be part of a government-backed master plan. Aside from those who have already purchased their future plots, individual outdoor graves are no longer offered to the families of the more than 35,000 Israelis who die each year.

The first space-saving option is to put graves on top of each other - separated by a concrete divider - and have a shared headstone. This is common among couples and even whole families, and every new pit dug in Israel has room for at least two graves in it. The second option is stacking the dead above ground into niches built into walls, a bit like in a morgue, but adorned with headstones. The third, and most revolutionary option, is to be buried in a building where each floor resembles a traditional cemetery, without the blue sky above.

For this upheaval to take off in Israel, though, the blessing of the rabbis was needed. Israel's rabbinical authorities oversee all burials of Jewish Israelis.

The Jewish burial ritual is based on the passage in Genesis in which God banishes Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden: "For dust you are - and to dust you shall return." Jewish law stipulates that all bodies be buried separately on a layer of dust and earth.

Yaakov Ruza, the rabbi of the Tel Aviv burial society, a semiofficial organization that oversees Jewish burials, said the new forms of burial have been endorsed by leading Jewish ultra-Orthodox figures.

The towers, for instance, have pipes filled with dirt inside their columns so that each layer is still connected to the ground. In many ways, Ruza said the new types of burial represent a return to the Holy Land's ancient origins of burying inside caves and catacombs.

"This is an artificial cave," he said. "Once they used to build a cave into a mountain. Now we are taking these artificial caves and turning them into a mountain."

Jerusalem's burial society even has plans to dig an actual underground cave to find more room for the dead.

Proponents say the new system is more sustainable, environmentally friendly and user friendly - providing a more comfortable visiting experience.

But resistance has emerged from a public wary of change. In one famous case, a bereaved family threatened a cemetery official that if their loved one was put in a wall they'd put the official in a wall too.

Shmuel Slavin, a former director-general of Israel's Finance Ministry who put together a report on the country's burial crisis, said there is no reason for such an emotionally fraught overhaul of an ancient tradition. He believes there is enough space in outlying areas, such as the vast Negev Desert in southern Israel, to build new cemeteries.

He said technological advances could allow more burials in existing cemeteries, and that the new "dead cities" will be expensive to build and maintain.

But the bottom line, he said, was that people just don't want to be buried that way. "People don't want to hear about it," he said. "There is a matter of tradition here. People want to be buried like their parents."

Officials say that those who insist on traditional burial will still have that option; they'll just have to drive a little further and pay for it. Cemeteries, they say, are not designed for the dead but rather for the living who want to visit them. The hope is that by attending funerals, people will be exposed to the new system and learn to appreciate its upside.

Either way, burial officials say a growing number of people understand that change is inevitable.

"We are all in favor of burying in the open field so long as it does not infringe on our lives. So if there is no more room to build homes in Jerusalem, I prefer burying in layers," said Chananya Shahor, manager of the Jerusalem burial society. "God gave us land for living, not for dying."

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Follow Aron Heller on Twitter @aronhellerap


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