PARIS, FRANCE —
France has Europe's largest Jewish population, but many do not want to stay there forever. The last decade has seen a steady rise in the number of French Jews opting for burial in Israel. The reasons are many, but one of the biggest factors is space. In some French cemeteries, Jewish-only burial sections are rapidly filling up.
Franck Darmon is only 35, but he already knows where his bones will lie. Not in his native France, but in Israel.
He says that when you compare a cemetery in Israel - with the blue sky, the sun and the white tombstones - with one in France, with its grey surroundings, it is very distressing. The soul does not have the same type of rest.
Darmon is not the only French Jew drawing this conclusion. And not just because of the weather. For the living and the dead here, Israel is becoming the final destination.
Some are snapping up cemetery plots in the Holy Land early on, as insurance against premature death and sharply rising prices. Others are unearthing loved ones from French graveyards for reburial in Israel, sometimes years after their death. Their decisions are being shaped by a confluence of religious, financial and practical considerations.
Darmon, who manages a funeral home in northeastern Paris, is seeing the changes in his books. Roughly a third of his business heads to Israel. There are others who would like to be buried there, but can not afford it.
Just how many Jews end up in Israel is hard to say. Israeli airline El Al - which carries the caskets - will not disclose the figures. Undertakers, along with the Paris Consistory, representing the Jewish community here, say the numbers are growing steadily and amount to hundreds each year.
They reflect Israel's larger pull for French Jews, who are immigrating there by the thousands for religious and emotional reasons. For Ariel Kandel, who heads the Paris office of the Jewish Agency for Israel, it makes more sense for Jews to head to the Holy Land alive.
He says the point of Israel isn't to get buried there, but to live there and build the country. It's something positive.
But these days, burial decisions are being driven by necessity, as well as by choice. Jewish-only sections in some cemeteries around Paris - where most French Jews live - are filling up. That is true for celebrated cemeteries like Pere Lachaise… and for the area's largest cemetery, in the French suburb of Pantin.
Now, Darmon says, cemeteries are beginning to have mixed-faith plots. So those who are scrupulous about Jewish laws prefer to be buried in Israel. Others are finding that family burial plots are not forever in France. Many have fixed term leases that are rapidly running out. And authorities can exhume and burn the remains of untended graves, a practice that goes against Jewish beliefs.
That, says Orthodox rabbi Mendel Azimov, is scaring many French Jews.
"Burial is not a lifetime. Burial can be one day thrown out from the cave…so every day there are dead people that are carried over to Israel," said Azimov. "My grandparents were buried in Israel, my mother is buried in Israel…everybody that has the possibility financially. So every night, EL Al has bodies going off to Israel."
Funeral homes are quickly responding to this new reality. Across town, undertaker Menahem Perez says his funeral home, Sportes, has bought up 100 plots at a cemetery near Jerusalem. Sportes ships about 130 caskets to Israel yearly, including exhumed bodies for reburial there.
Burial in Israel is a few thousand more euros, Perez says, but it is worth it. Because Israel is forever. With less red tape, and daily El Al flights from Paris, it is also much easier and quicker to be buried there today than just a decade ago.
Perez heads to his next assignment - at a hospital outside the capital. Family and friends crowd around a casket set out in a small room.
Men chant passages from the Torah. An old woman cries in a corner. A policeman seals the coffin before it is lowered into a waiting van. The door snaps shut, and the body is gone, on its way to Israel and sunshine .