Building over my dead body

Karin Kloosterman, Green Prophet

Jewish legend has it that when the Messiah comes every dead person buried will come back to life from an indivisible node at the back of the neck. Jewish law holds supreme reverence for the dead. In the Holy City of Jerusalem the dead should be buried before nightfall, and all those old bones you can imagine are piling up.

With extreme prohibitions on moving the dead, the Holy Land of Israel is coming to terms with how to keep the urban fabric going as previous gets left in the dust. There are lots of opportunities for urban architects not only in Israel but for the world, in coming up with respectful and religiously-sensitive solutions to keeping the dead in their rightful resting spot, while allowing the living to expand gracefully.

Dense burial is one important way in Israel: Jerusalem is stacking its dead. Like raised parking lots at airports, cemeteries in Jerusalem are stacking the graves on cement stilts and platforms, solving the problem of limited space. It costs more at first, but long-term maintenance costs less. Four times the dead can be buried in dense burial graves versus conventional graves.

Then there are the ancient graves: in Israel urban planners must learn to build around them (see this old case study from Cairo). Last year surveyors found an ancient Jewish gravesite while starting a new highway project. How was it solved? A bypass bridge over the graves was constructed at a huge expense. In other cities where old graves are within the city limits, special roads must be built for the Cohens, the Jewish priests, to drive on so they don’t come in contact with the dead – a prohibition in Jewish law.

Then of course there are the contractors and architects who ignore requests to desist from building on hallowed ground. In the land of the prophets, this way of thinking channels particularly bad Karma. The Andromeda building in Jaffa was a project that went ahead despite massive religious protests. The contractor died in the midst of the construction; further infrastructure and support is at a standstill created by extreme religious protest.

Like most environmentalists in Israel, I am for saving open space, and building up the urban core, rather than building across new open land, even if it’s in the desert. I value nature, as much as I love the frenetic craziness of living in an Israeli city.

What to do with the dead in our cities and towns will be a bigger question that Europeans, North Americans and the world will face in the new millennium. I think that ‘architects of the dead’ could be a new line of work for the designers and builders of our future – a task to incorporate the bones of our past with the living in our cities.

Karin Kloosterman is the founder and editor of Green Prophet, the only sustainable news source covering the Middle East region. Green Prophet often features green design news from the Arab world, highlighting ancient practices and techniques that can promote energy efficiency and smart design for the future.

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