Jerusalem underground cemetery
An artist's impression of a new underground cemetery which is being built at Har HaMenuchot in Jerusalem and is nearing completion. Rolzur

Construction is being completed on a massive underground city of the dead in Israel, designed to meet demand for graves in full-to-burst Jerusalem for at least a decade.

Jerusalem's largest cemetery, Har HaMenuchot or 'the mountain of rest', is almost at full capacity, with 150,000 people buried there. But a huge necropolis to provide space for around 22,000 graves, using an intricate system of tunnels, is now being completed under the site. Burials are expected to begin at the new graves in approximately November 2018 and further extensions are planned for the future.

Three huge lift shafts will connect the 12 tunnels, laid out over three floors, to the world above, while the underground space is expected to be air conditioned with soft lighting.

The project has been internationally recognised and was a finalist at the ITA Tunnelling Awards in Paris on 15 November, in the "innovative underground space concept of the year" category. The ITA recognised the project for recognising "a mounting global, environmental and real estate crisis, while also meeting emotional and religious needs".

Speaking to the Jerusalem Post, Arik Glazer, head of the Rolzur tunneling company leading the project, said: "The project is progressing as scheduled. More than 60% of the tunnels are already excavated. Design is finished and very soon we will start to build the various buildings inside the caverns."

The project was first developed due to a chronic shortage of burial space in Jerusalem, exacerbated by Orthodox Jewish burial traditions that forbid cremation. Jews, Muslims and Christians all pay a premium for burial locations near holy sites including Temple Mount, and locals and foreigners alike clamour to be laid to rest in the holy city.

Many Israeli cemeteries have responded by sprouting vertically upwards in steep mountainsides with multi-storied terraced structures. Glazer used to drive by Har HaMenuchot every day on his way to work, which was when he got the idea for his radical solution. He told the Times of Israel: "As people approach the capital every day, they have to go by dead people. I didn't like this, and I wanted to think about a solution."

Rolzur says the necropolis is designed to last for posterity and minimise future maintenance, made easier as the tombs are not exposed to the elements. "The space-saving, economical, and locational advantages all make it substantially more feasible to ensure the continuity of these gravesites," the website said. The underground space is also more cost-effective and promotes the idea of repurposing undeveloped land without damaging the natural landscape above.