Human skulls and bones are stacked in a pile in Paris's catacombs.
Human skulls and bones are stacked in a room in Paris's catacombs. Charles Platiau/Reuters

In the face of shrinking space for the dead, Sydney and Jerusalem are building underground cemeteries.

As space dwindles for new burials in urban cemeteries, designers are coming up with solutions for where—and how—to inter the future dead. While some propose high-tech fixes, such as hanging vessels in which decomposing remains generate electricity, others advocate more natural solutions, such as designated spaces where bodies are composted en masse.

In at least two cities, those in the business of the dead are implementing a more historic strategy: building catacombs. In Sydney, the Eastern Suburbs Memorial Park is planning to construct Australia’s first catacombs, while in West Jerusalem, an Israeli burial organization and construction firm are already creating a network of almost a dozen tunnels under Har Hamenuchot cemetery.

Catacombs go way back. In Rome, the oldest tunnels date from the first century A.D., when Jewish communities used them. Christian use came about a century later, and the practice was common among both religions until above-ground cemeteries became customary around the fifth century.

More than a thousand years later, Paris created its catacombs when its cemeteries overflowed. The tipping point came in 1780, when a particularly heavy spring rain caused a wall around Les Innocents, the city’s largest and oldest cemetery, to collapse, and rotting corpses tumbled into a neighboring property. The city moved the remains of between six and seven million people to underground limestone quarries that had been mined to build the metropolis—and which needed to be filled, as houses and roads were collapsing in on them due to faulty building practices.

While Sydney and West Jerusalem may not be facing the problem of surfacing corpses, they are confronting shrinking space. Sydney’s major cemeteries are projected to run out of room in 30 years, and Eastern Suburbs Memorial Park even earlier, in 15 years. The cemetery’s new $7.9 million catacombs—a multi-story, car park-like structure—would provide an additional 7,000 burial spaces, but families could choose to eventually take remains from the graves and put them in nearby ossuary boxes, freeing up space for new burials. "You can create perpetuity for centuries for the same grave," park CEO Graham Boyd told Singapore’s Straits Times.

Sydney’s catacombs would feature tombs as well as ossuary boxes. (Courtesy of Eastern Suburbs Memorial Park)

The more than 200,000 burial spaces in West Jerusalem’s Har Hamenuchot cemetery are nearly full. The catacombs below will add another 22,000 crypts, assembled floor to ceiling in three levels. The first interments are slated to occur later this year, when the first tunnels are completed, but construction won’t be finished for at least another four years. The project’s cost is $50 million, and is mainly funded by the sale of burial plots.

Cremation is a more popular option than it was a few decades ago: in the U.S., for instance, cremation rates surpassed those of traditional burials in 2015. But the need for these plots remains. Some individuals, particularly those who practice Judaism or Islam, which emphasize burying their dead, will continue to choose interment.

And as long as there’s a demand for it, cities will require space for these souls. Catacombs, as pleasant spaces to visit loved ones, could be at least part of the answer. Yair Maayan, the project manager of Har Hamenuchot’s catacombs, is a decided believer. “The future is underground,” he told the Washington Post.

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