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  • Adrian J. Boas

On Disposing of the Dead

Updated: Sep 6, 2018



A vast and ever-expanding necropolis known as Givat Shaul (The Hill of Saul) stands at the entrance to Jerusalem on the main Tel-Aviv-Jerusalem highway. With around 300,000 "residents" it is the most populous and one of the fastest-growing suburbs of the city. As in many other cemeteries, there is an increasing use of multi-storey, vertical burial structures, but the rate of deaths far exceeds the speed of construction. Until medical advances bring an end to the unfortunate phenomenon of death (not, it would seem, a likely development in the foreseeable future), the race goes on to crowd more and more bodies into a rapidly diminishing space.


In the twelfth century the city faced a similar problem. To deal with the growing body-count (according to one source in a single day there were sometimes as many as 50 deaths in the hospital of the Order of St John alone), a great charnel house was constructed in the Valley of Ben Hinnom, south of the city. Bodies of the dead (mainly those of poor pilgrims who had no one to bury them and no funds to cover a regular burial in a cemetery) were carried to the charnel house and dropped into it from openings on the roof. Lime was then poured in, in order to prevent the outbreak of disease, and the miraculous process of almost instantaneous decomposition (within a mere three days, so it was claimed) began. Indeed, so effective was the decomposition, that, it would seem, even the bones disintegrated - at least that is the conclusion we might come to considering that, when an examination of the vast pit was carried out a few years ago, not a single bone was found.

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