Jewish Funerals & Rocks

Stones and memorial candles dot the grave of Rabbi Yitzhak Luria, a 16th century Jewish mystic.
... David Silverman/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Many Americans who are unfamiliar with Jewish traditions know the iconic scene at the end of the film Schindler’s List. A long line of people who were saved from Auschwitz by Oskar Schindler visit his grave, each person placing a small rock or pebble on Schlinder's headstone. The rocks are an essential part of Jewish tradition, though Jewish funeral tradition is much more complex.

1 Rocks as Memorials

Rocks are used as a memorial after the funeral, at the unveiling of the headstone. The gravestone is laid at any time after the first month of mourning until the one year anniversary. At the gravestone's unveiling and during later visits, people who visit the grave of a Jewish person traditionally take a small rock or pebble and lay it on top of the headstone. Although the origin of this ritual is not known, it may refer back to ancient times when a community collectively built a pile of stones to mark the burial site. Each rock is an enduring token, marking the mourner’s visit to the grave and their memory of their loved one.

2 Jewish Funeral Service

Jewish tradition dictates that the body must be buried within 24 hours of the person’s death, or as soon after as possible. The funeral is preceded by a ritual called "tahara," where the body is purified and wrapped in a shroud before being placed in a plain casket. The body is never left alone. As friends and relatives arrive at the funeral home or synagogue, they may visit with the immediate family, seated near the body. The funeral service begins with "keriah;" the deceased's immediate family members symbolically tear their clothes or a piece of black cloth to show their grief. The congregation recites psalms and prayers, and the rabbi delivers a eulogy. A close family member often also reads a eulogy. The service ends with the "kaddish," the traditional prayer praising God recited by the mourners.

3 Procession and Burial

The casket is traditionally placed on the shoulders of Jewish mourners and carried to the burial site feet first. The congregation follows behind. Seven moments of standstill are incorporated into the procession, called "ma’amadot." These hesitations represent the mourners’ reluctance to say goodbye. At the first of these stops, one mourner throws crockery onto the ground, breaking it, and cries, “The snare is broken and we have escaped.” This refers to the soul of the dead escaping its body. If the casket is transported to the burial site by a hearse, the "ma'amadot" takes place outside the synagogue or in the cemetery. After final prayers, the body is lowered into its grave and each of the mourners as well as friends who wish to shovels earth on the casket.

4 Mourning

Jewish mourning traditions offer a structured way to grieve and accept the loss of a loved one. The first seven days after the funeral are called "shivah," a time in which the immediate family is sequestered at home to grieve. They do not work or attend to their personal care. If possible, they hold morning and evening services every day. They also receive friends and community members who share in their grief. Visitors traditionally bring food to provide for the bereaved. At the end of the seven days, the bereaved return to work and to life. They continue to remember the dead by saying the Kaddish at services. A spouse, children or parents may say Kaddish for a month or for a year, until the anniversary of the death, when mourning officially ends.

Julia Brucker is a museum educator at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and a passionate urban gardener. She has written articles on culture and gardening for the Art Story Foundation and Opposing Views Cultures. Brucker holds an M.A. in art history and museum studies from Tufts University, as well as a B.A. in German and art history from Lawrence University.