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.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. Life

    What Emergency Child Care Looks Like During a Pandemic

    What's a parent to do when all of the schools and daycares suddenly close? For some workers in some places, options are starting to emerge.

  2. photo: South Korean soldiers attempt to disinfect the sidewalks of Seoul's Gagnam district in response to the spread of COVID-19.
    Coronavirus

    Pandemics Are Also an Urban Planning Problem

    Will COVID-19 change how cities are designed? Michele Acuto of the Connected Cities Lab talks about density, urbanization and pandemic preparation.  

  3. Illustration: two roommates share a couch with a Covid-19 virus.
    Coronavirus

    For Roommates Under Coronavirus Lockdown, There Are a Lot of New Rules

    Renters in apartments and houses share more than just germs with their roommates: Life under coronavirus lockdown means negotiating new social rules.

  4. photo: a For Rent sign in a window in San Francisco.
    Coronavirus

    Do Landlords Deserve a Coronavirus Bailout, Too?

    Some renters and homeowners are getting financial assistance during the economic disruption from the coronavirus pandemic. What about landlords?

  5. Equity

    We'll Need To Reopen Our Cities. But Not Without Making Changes First.

    We must prepare for a protracted battle with coronavirus. But there are changes we can make now to prepare locked-down cities for what’s next.

×