Simi Cave Tombs Bring a Tradition to Life


Clouds of dust swirl as workmen burrow into a stony hillside trying to recapture an ancient Hebrew tradition that began with Abraham and has found its way to Simi Valley.

Deep inside the earth at Mt. Sinai Memorial Park, a series of caverns, honeycombed with hundreds of empty tombs, is being constructed. And designers say that by October it will be the only place outside of Israel where a person can receive a genuine cave burial.

Such burials hark back to the Jewish patriarch Abraham, who, the Bible says, bought the cave of Machpelah in Hebron as a family crypt. Following Abraham's example, priests and other accomplished Jews took to interring loved ones in caves.

The practice has become popular in modern Israel, where a severe land shortage makes it an alternative to in-ground burials.

"A Jewish grave is a grave forever," said Uri Ponger, an Israeli architect who has designed numerous cave tombs in Israel and was a consultant on the Mt. Sinai project. "You can't use it again; you can't move it." Moving a tomb, he said, is against Jewish law.

Ponger said in some European countries, graves are considered recyclable after a certain length of time.

"In Paris, it's seven years, in Berlin it's 20 years," he said.

Cremation is frowned upon in Jewish tradition, reflecting the statement in Genesis that "you are dust and to dust you shall return." Anything that interferes with the body's natural return to the earth is seen with disapproval, said Robert Sax, spokesman for the cemetery.

And the experience of the Holocaust, in which many of the 6 million Jews killed were later burned in ovens, made cremation anathema for many Jews.

For burial, Jewish law mandates that at least two hands of earth--about 20 inches--separate bodies in all directions, Ponger said. The cave crypts at Mt. Sinai are being built into a cliff face, with earthen walls at least two hands thick separating each cave. The walls between caves are made of a material that includes dirt from Jewish cemeteries from all over the world. The crypts are bigger than those in Israel because they will house coffins. In Israel, the dead are typically buried only in shrouds.

About 1,100 crypts are planned, with 550 scheduled for completion by October.

The caves offer a cool, dusty haven from the glaring midday sun. Standing inside a newly drilled cave, engineer Robert Levonian said the place was unlike any other.

"I have built cemeteries for 46 years and done 200 or 300 mausoleums, but this is one of a kind," said Levonian, who engineered and designed the caves.

He said it took more than two years of searching to find the right place. He settled on Simi Valley because of the space available, the terrain and the increasing migration of Jews to eastern Ventura County.

The cave crypts will sell for $6,000 to $8,000 each, and eight have already been purchased, said Arnold Saltzman, general manager of the cemetery.

"It will take about 200 years to fill this up," Saltzman said, basing the estimate on the size of the Jewish population of Los Angeles and Ventura counties, which is about 600,000.

Ponger, who lives in Jerusalem, flew in recently to look at the site to ensure it followed Jewish tradition.

He said Simi Valley's climate and landscape are similar to those of Israel.

As for his own burial, Ponger also hopes to end up in a cave.

"First of all, it's a tradition and it's beautiful," he said, peering into an empty tomb. "I also have a green ideology. I don't want to see a country full of cemeteries."

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