The Jewish faith is rich with ancient practices, customs and traditions. There are numerous Jewish rites surrounding each of life’s milestones, from births to weddings to deaths. Each distinctive tradition is a quintessential means of observing the event’s importance. At the same time, they honor one of the world’s foremost faiths.
In Judaism, there is one specific custom regarding death that has inspired generations of rampant speculation. Before leaving gravesites, mourners place a small stone on the monument. Of course, this is an indication that someone has visited the grave. This burial tradition is ancient, with unclear origins. Furthermore, there are countless theories surrounding the reason for this practice, from a myriad of interpretive sources.
Fox Monuments has been serving Long Island’s Jewish community for over 65 years. We understand what a loss feels like, and we also understand the importance of maintaining traditions during these difficult times. Below, we’ll discuss the several theories exploring the purpose for this distinct mourning ritual.
5 Common Explanations of Placing a Stone on a Headstone
1. A Warning to Kohanim (Jewish Priests)
1. A Warning to Kohanim (Jewish Priests)
During ancient times in Jerusalem, Jewish priests were not able to come within four feet of a corpse. They believed that this close proximity would somehow taint them, or make them impure. As a result, Jews began leaving piles of rocks on graves to warn the priests to keep their distance.
This warning is a biblical practice that may have influenced the modern tradition.
2. Stones Last Longer Than Flowers
Many consider stones to be a symbol of our departed loved ones’ enduring presences in our lives. In addition, this belief claims the stone represents their memory and legacy, and how they live on in us. Flowers may be pretty, but not for very long. They will eventually wilt and die.
Also, generally speaking, many Jewish families consider the presence of flowers at a funeral distasteful. A stone will not quickly expire, and can represent the infinite quality of a person’s legacy. This practice can help those dealing with the difficult stages of mourning. It can help a person feel a sense of eternal connection to their loved one.
3. Notes Left to Loved Ones
Throughout history, Jews have inserted handwritten notes into Jerusalem’s Western Wall. When they couldn’t find a place to put the note, they would weigh it down with a stone at the base of the wall.
Similarly, this tradition eventually became central to Jewish funeral etiquette, with mourners placing notes on graves weighed down by stones. As people have moved away from note-writing over the years, the stone has remained as a symbol of heartfelt communication with those we love.
4. Anchoring The Soul in This World
In the Talmud, it states that a person’s soul will dwell in the grave where they are buried. As a comfort to loved ones, they possibly began placing the stone on the grave to anchor their soul in this world. Loved ones inherently wish to feel close to their deceased family and friends. Therefore, it’s entirely likely that this practice is a result of that.
Similarly, another interpretation expresses that the stone will keep unworldly beings away from the cemetery. Many suggest that there was likely a historical belief in the stones’ ability to protect the lingering souls of the departed from contact with demons or golems.
5. Connection and Memory
When a person comes to a grave and sees stones upon a loved one’s headstone, they often find this comforting. These stones remind them that someone they care for was visited, mourned for, respected, supported and honored by the presence of others who’ve visited their memorial.
The Hebrew word for pebble is also a word that means “bond.” By placing a stone on the headstone, it bonds the deceased with the visitors. Some people take extra care in choosing the right stone. It’s possible that it may have special significance or that it came from a place that reminds them of their loved one.
Throughout all the Jewish mourning customs, this one is the most difficult to trace to a specific origin.
However, regardless of the interpretation your family chooses, placing a stone on the monument you visit is simply a way to express love and respect. Each Jewish family (or individual) can decide what feels the most meaningful to them.