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Israel's Housing Prices Follow People To Their Graves

In a small country like Israel, land is finite and costs continue to rise. Burials are expensive, and the rich and poor are laid to rest depending on their means.

A Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives
A Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives
Ari Libsker

TEL AVIV — It’s early afternoon at the Yarkon Cemetery, where a few dozen people are gathered at the entrance plaza. A small funeral procession leaves and heads to a new burial structure called Tamar.

The 300-meter-long building is still under construction. The convoy stops in front of a large wall with five rows of burial chambers. The deceased is placed in a chamber in the third floor. The gravediggers fill the niche with dirt bags, then close it with a marble plate and silicon. Later, the family can add another marble plate and a small gravestone if they wish. Beneath the gravestone a stone shelf will be fitted for a memorial candle and flowers.

A relative of the family says the choice of a chamber burial was made for lack of other options. They simply can’t afford burial in the ground.

“Before she died, she asked that we don’t put too much money into the burial,” the relative says. “We’re sad. She deserved more than just being put into a miserable cranny.”

Our conversation is interrupted by construction noise — drilling and sawing — that also surrounded the funeral, disturbing family mourning and encroaching on the intimate space. Without money, you can’t even mourn peacefully.

Israel’s housing shortage is even following people to their graves, making the country’s class divide even more pronounced. In the past, everyone was buried in the ground as equals. But in a small country like Israel, lands is finite and the demand-and-supply has created inequality even among the dead.

Those who have the money can be buried anywhere they want. It’s just a matter of several hundreds of thousands of shekels. Those who have slightly less can do with a spacious lot in a civil cemetery or in Kibbutz graveyard.

Those who live in the Tel Aviv metropolitan area and haven’t purchased a burial plot find themselves in the Yarkon Cemetery, where they are laid to rest in one of the new structures.

Burial slums

Prices range here between 8,000 shekels ($2,300) for a single person on the last floor to 50,000 ($14,400) for a couple on the ground floor.

Those who cannot afford even 8,000 shekels are buried in long rows of burial chambers in five or six levels inside the building. Tombstone on top of tombstone. It’s dense and crowded, but it’s also free.

Even here there is hierarchy: demand is higher for chambers on the lower rows, and the top rows are used mostly for single people.

With over 60,000 graves, the Yarkon Cemetery is Israel’s largest. Twenty-three years after its opening, occupancy rate is 80%.

So-called dense burial — in burial chambers within in public Jewish cemeteries run by the Chevra Kadhisha burial society — dates back to a 2009 government decision. And the Yarkon Cemetery has been a leader in such burial solutions. Overall, 15 burial buildings are planned. Three are currently under construction but have already been in use for a year.

Eran Freund, the project’s construction manager, is overseeing work on the site and says everything is strictly calculated. “No problem, anyone can be buried,” he says. “Inside, every grave is two meters deep. Two weeks ago, in another cemetery, they buried a person who weighed 190 kilos. They lowered him to the ground with a crane and buried him in this kind of grave. Even an NBA player could fit in. The gravediggers are very skilled.”

According to the Chevra Kadisha society, each grave costs about 6000 shekels, but the state subsidizes only 2000 shekels, so the difference is covered by those who buy burial plots. This way, those who want a premium product help pay for those who have no money to pay.

“We tried to come up with a reasonable mix,” says Rabbi Abraham Manella, CEO of Chevra Kadisha Tel Aviv. “But we realized we wouldn’t get the full funding for the project, and the finance ministry committed to covering the deficit if we can reach the quota.”

When the three burial buildings are completed, they will offer close to 35,000 burial spaces — enough for the Tel Aviv metropolitan area for the next five years. With the remaining 12 burial buildings, their 200,000 burial spaces should be enough for another 30 years.

In the second floor of one of these buildings, I meet a young woman, who is wiping the black marble gravestone of her mother’s tomb. “Both the funeral and the burial were a great financial expense for the family,” she says. “We thought it would be a standard grave, like we know. Not on the second floor. But what can you do? Even dying is expensive here.”

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