There are many bereavement customs in the Jewish faith, and the practice of these customs varies among the different denominations of Judaism. Many Jewish bereavement traditions that are still practiced today are based on centuries-old rituals. One such custom involves placing a stone on the marker of the grave.
Following an Ancient Practice
There are a few different theorized origins of this custom. The first theory states that the practice of placing a rock on the headstone is meant to mirror the ancient method of marking a gravesite. In ancient times, many cultures marked graves with cairns, piles of stones. Sometimes these cairns were small and temporary, used to mark the grave until a large slab could be found. Other ancient writings suggest that mourners participated in the building of a cairn to mark their loved one’s tomb and to express their grief. Some religious scholars believe that the act of placing a stone on a gravestone may be a modern incarnation of these ancient practices.
Mementos from Visitors
Another theory about the origin of this practice addresses a mourner's desire to leave some trinket at the gravesite. In some cultural and religious practices, flowers are placed at gravesites. This is not typically the case in Jewish tradition, but the stones left on the headstone may have a similar purpose. Leaving a pebble at the gravesite is a symbolic way of saying that the deceased will not be forgotten and a tangible sign to show other mourners that someone has visited the grave and remembered.
Stones have special significance. The prophet Isaiah wrote that “All flesh is grass, and all its beauty like the flower of the field; grass withers and flowers fade." By contrast, stones do not die. While flowers may represent the temporary state of life, pebbles placed on a gravestone can symbolize that the memory of the deceased will endure beyond death.
Inspiration from Other Traditions
There are other customs that may have inspired this tradition. Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles points to an ancient system shepherds used to keep count of their flocks. Shepherds kept a count of their sheep by tallying them with pebbles in their slings. When stones are placed on the headstones, Rabbi Wolpe says this may symbolize the soul being added to God’s sling.
At the Western Wall in Jerusalem, prayers are written on small pieces of paper and placed in crevices in the Wall. Sometimes, prayers are placed under stones on or near the Wall if no crevices can be found. Over time the papers disintegrate, leaving behind only the stones. Some believe that these stones at the Wall inspired the stones that are left at gravesites.
- My Jewish Learning: The Jewish Denominations
- Modern Jewish Wedding: The Tombstone, The Unveiling and Visiting the Grave
- Jewish Virtual Library: Why Do Jews Put Stones On Tombstones?
- ESV Bible: Isaiah 40:6-7
- Encyclopedia Britannica: Cairn
- Ohr Somayach: Grave Gravel
- Jerusalem Western Wall: Why Send A Note?
- Beliefnet: The Symbol Of The Stone
- Jupiterimages/Photos.com/Getty Images