The burial method used to entomb Jesus is coming back in style in Jerusalem, where a land shortage has turned burials into a competitive sport, with families jockeying for prime spots of land in one of the world’s holiest cities.
In response to the lack of horizontal space, an Israeli burial agency is planning a massive $50 million underground necropolis to house the departed. The city of the dead will be burrowed under Jerusalem’s largest cemetery.
Har Hamenuchot, or “Mount of Those Who Are Resting,” was opened in 1951 in west Jerusalem, and is wrapped around a mountaintop. The necropolis being built into it will have room for 22,000 burial plots that will be organized into three tiers and accessible via elevator.
With 6 million Jewish Israelis living in Jerusalem and another 8 million Jews in the world, many are eyeing the holy city as their eternal resting place, and demand for a plot has skyrocketed after a number of cemeteries closed their doors to new residents.
“We need our land for the living and not for the dead,” Hananya Shachar, director of the Jerusalem Jewish Community Burial Society, told the Washington Post. “Now we’ve got the drilling equipment, the know-how and the means, so we said, ‘Let’s go for it.’”
Israeli citizens are eligible for a state-funded cemetery, and their burials are arranged by non-profit agencies in Israel.
One tenth of the Israeli Jews who die annually are buried in Jerusalem. For those not eligible for free burial, many still pay for a plot in Jerusalem. Burial customs for other religious groups are governed by separate entities.
Plans for the project were revealed in December, and as of mid-May, it was full steam ahead. The Jerusalem organization already has decided to continue tunneling into the mountainside, carving out thousands more vaults in the coming years. This first batch, it told the Washington Post, it expects to fill in seven years.
Israel has also recently begun constructing burial buildings to combat the issue of space. Inside these massive, modern-looking structures, bodies are stacked in wall slots. On the edge of Tel Aviv, there are plans to build 30 buildings to hold 250,000 bodies.
“It’s unreasonable that we will live one on top of the other in tall apartment buildings and then die in villas,” Tuvia Sagiv, an architect of burial design, told the Associated Press in October. “If we have already agreed to live one on top of the other, then we can die one on top of the other.”
But the religious authorities have expressed skepticism over whether the method is allowed.
The rabbis, who oversee all Jewish burials in Israel, agree that underground crypts are not in dispute, as they were frequently used back in the days of Jesus. The burial organizations have just repurposed one of the most ancient methods of burial—with an elevator.