Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

The pyramids of Petach Tikvah

Simon Wein
Petach Tikvah

Dead bodies may be burned, buried, left for carrion animals,1 dropped into the sea, mummified, made into fertilizer or diamonds,2 or sent to universities to be dissected. However, there are several reasons why in many cultures the dead are buried in cemeteries and mausoleums:

  1. Respecting the dead focuses survivors on living;
  2. Preserving the body for reconstitution in an afterlife;
  3. As a symbol of immortality;
  4. To provide an illusory measure of control over death.

Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address used the dedication of a new cemetery to honor the sacrifice of the dead, but also to exhort the living to continue the battle to win the American Civil War. Lincoln used both guilt and inspiration in this effort: “…that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain – that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”3

Over 110 billion people are estimated to have died since the beginning of humankind. If the average weight of each person was 35 kilograms (accounting for children and smaller stature in the past), the total weight of these dead people would be 3,850 billion kilograms (about 4×109 metric tons). Since we are made from dust and return thereof, it is worth contemplating that the earth weighs 6×1021 metric tons. Thus, the mass of dead people whose atoms have long since been recycled is truly a minimal fraction of the earth’s mass.

However, the problem today is one of surface area and not mass. If the 110 billion people who died each had a grave, let us say 1.5 by 0.75 meters, this would come to 1.125 square meters per person. In a cemetery, however, one needs access paths and roads. Thus, it would be reasonable to add another 50% to the required surface area to bury our dead, around 1.7 square meters per person. That would require 187 billion square meters, which is approximately the land mass of Senegal excluding water, or 0.1% of the world’s 153 million square kilometers of dry land. Urban structures take up about 4% of the earth’s surface area, and up to 50% is required for food production. This leaves 46% of the earth’s land surface, or 70,380,000 square kilometers (including deserts and mountains), available for burial purposes. However, since 110 billion dead people (keeping in mind that there are eight billion alive today) need only 187,000 square kilometers to repose, this would not seem to create a problem about space.

So why are high-rise mausoleums being built in Petach Tikvah, in central Israel, in 2022? The likely reason is to accommodate the wishes of people who want to be near the graves of dead family members. This puts great pressure on urban space. In the year 1800, only 10% of the world’s population lived in cities or towns. By 2020, the figure had reached 56%. Hence, there is significant pressure to dedicate land for cemeteries near urban centers.

Ancient Egyptians

Mastaba of Ancient Egypt. Photo by Jon Bodsworth via Wikimedia.

Egyptian burial structures, or mausoleums, date back 4,500 years. Initially they were not pyramidal in shape, but flat-topped and rectangular with inward sloping walls made of mud bricks. The structure was called a mastaba, or the “house of eternity.” The classic pyramids evolved from mastabas and were built for the powerful and wealthy pharaohs and their consorts. The shape of Egyptian pyramids represented the primordial mound of earth mixed with the sun’s rays.4 The ancient Egyptians worshipped Ra, the sun god.

Ancient Israelites

A tomb cut into rock was the common burial chamber, or sepulcher, used in ancient Israel. These tombs could be single or have multiple chambers. Almost all burial chambers contained a rock platform for initial placement of the body and an ossuary for later burial of the de-fleshed bones. Over the centuries of exile, customs changed, and today soil and headstones are considered essential ingredients for a burial.

The pyramids of Petach Tikvah

Mausoleum of modern Petach Tikvah.

In the past several years, the city of Petach Tikvah in central Israel has been building multi-level mausoleums within its existing cemetery. These structures of cement and steel are at least five levels high and have elevators. They are a pragmatic solution to the problem of limited land in a culture that does not sanction cremation or sea-burial.

These modern mausoleums are physically reminiscent of the mastabas of ancient Egypt. The Petach Tikvah buildings are also rectangular, with inward-sloping walls and flat roofs. In ancient Egypt, however, such structures were kept for pharaohs or others of high society. In modern Petach Tikvah, it is unlikely that important politicians, the wealthy, or religious leaders will be buried in these high-rise mausoleums. Instead, these structures will be for ordinary people, an amusing irony.

The Egyptian Pyramids, more than their predecessors the mastabas, were built during a period of great wealth, hence the extraordinary architectural effort. The external walls of the pyramids were covered with polished limestone so they could shine and sparkle dramatically in the skyline. The Petach Tikvah mausoleums have external walls that are meant to appear like a rocky mountainside, perhaps as a reminder of the ancient cut-rock tombs of past millennia. However, the architectural and aesthetic effect, without the saving grace of antiquity, is that of squat, concrete boxes adorned with childish papier-mâché. To think that the mastabas built 4500 years ago are aesthetically superior to the abominations in Petach Tikvah’s cemetery gives one pause. At the same time, our human need to commemorate the dead is unchanged after four and a half millennia, cultural differences aside.

One hundred years after burial, no one alive would personally know the resident of the grave. Nevertheless, visiting a cemetery does create pause for reflection. Gravesites of great people recall their achievements and provide inspiration. Yet, the memory of an unknown, simple man who struggled to sustain his family is of no less value than of those who made great discoveries. As more people live in the urban landscape, the issue of land-for-the-living versus land-for-the-dead will intensify. It seems that the solution is either for bodies to go up in smoke or graveyards to go up as skyscrapers.


  1. Wein, S. (2021). A place to rest. Palliative and Supportive Care, 1-2. doi:10.1017/S147895152100122X.
  2. Lonité. Ashes to Diamonds. https://lonite.com/cremation-ashes-into-diamonds/.
  3. “Gettysburg Address.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gettysburg_Address.
  4. “Egyptian pyramids.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Egyptian_pyramids.

DR. SIMON WEIN trained in medical oncology and palliative care in Melbourne Australia. He now heads the palliative care unit at the Davidoff Cancer Center in Petach Tikvah, Israel.

Summer 2022



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