When Jesus called Lazarus out of a tomb (John 11:38-44), His friend might have emerged from an underground burial chamber. It would have likely included several spaces shared by only a few families. That was 2,000 years ago. This week, the clamor of heavy equipment faded briefly as Israeli workers paused to put a much larger burial project on display. It’s all intended to help overcome a looming shortage of gravesites for Jewish people in Jerusalem.
Row upon row of prospective tombs are being built underneath the holy city. There, the city’s dead jostle for space.
The huge necropolis has 23,000 burial chambers. They line the walls and floor of a mile-long, underground labyrinth. It’s carved under the hillside beneath the city’s main Jewish cemetery, Givat Shaul, which is rapidly running out of room.
Dozens of graveyards in Israel have already closed their gates to new burials.
Chananya Shachor is the local director of Chevra Kadisha, the main group overseeing Jewish burials in Israel. The organization has invested about 300 million shekels ($86 million) in the project. Shachor explains: “According to our plan, after we finish the first part of 23,000 graves, probably we will have enough space to continue digging underground and we don’t know exactly the capacity that we will have at the end of the project. We know that we will continue, if people will accept this new method of burying, we will continue doing all the work underground.”
The current phase of the project will take four years to complete. But the first 8,000 graves will be ready for the end of October.
In the days of Jesus, family members would return and open a tomb to collect the bones of the deceased. They put those bones in an ossuary box to take up less space. No such bone collecting is expected in Jerusalem’s enormous burial chamber!
(The construction site of a massive underground cemetery under a mountain on the outskirts of Jerusalem AP Photo/Oded Balilty)