Why Do Mourners Place Stones on Jewish Graves?

Many explanations exist for the ancient Jewish custom of visiting stones

Visitors to Jewish gravesites often leave pebbles, rocks or stones on the headstones of loved ones.. Photo © Ursula Alter/E+/Getty Images

For thousands of years, human beings have used rocks and stones of varying sizes in their burial rituals and traditions, whether to cover a deceased body, mark the burial site in order to locate it later, or to memorialize the individual who died (e.g., the headstones and gravemarkers found in modern cemeteries and memorial parks). Unique to Jewish tradition, however, is the custom of placing pebbles, stones and small rocks on Jewish graves.

This article explores several possible origins of the ancient Judaic practice of leaving a "visiting stone" on the headstone or gravesite of a deceased loved one.

The Custom
Within the Jewish tradition, mourners visiting the gravesite of a loved one will often place a visiting stone atop the headstone or gravemarker, or somewhere on the gravesite itself, before departing. These rocks and stones vary in size -- generally anywhere from a pebble to golf ball-sized or larger -- and might be obtained by the mourner beforehand from someplace of significance to the visitor and/or the deceased, or even provided by the cemetery itself (particularly during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur).

Depending upon the gravesite, it is not uncommon to see a few pebbles or rocks to a veritable "mountain" of visitor stones (as seen in the photo above) denoting previous visits from family members, friends and loved ones who honored the deceased with their presence.

As awareness of this ancient Judaic custom has spread -- thanks in large part to the Internet -- even people from other religious faiths have embraced the idea of leaving visitor stones at the burial sites of their loved ones. In addition, several companies now provide commercially made and/or personalized versions of these stones, such as Remembrance Stones and MitzvahStones, among others.

The Possible Explanations
Not unlike many of the traditions, customs and superstitions surrounding modern funeral, burial and mourning practices, the origin of mourners leaving pebbles, stones or rocks at the site of Jewish graves is unfortunately lost to time. Many theories exist, however, such as:

• Depending upon your interpretation and beliefs, the Talmud (the written compendium of Jewish oral tradition) can suggest that the human soul remains in the grave with the body after death -- possibly for a few days, a week, a year, or until the final resurrection and judgment. Thus, mourners might have originally placed stones on the graves of loved ones in order to prevent souls from leaving their burial spots.

• Whereas the previous explanation was intended to keep something in, another theory suggests that people wanted to keep something out. Placing pebbles and rocks on Jewish graves might have prevented evil spirits and demons from entering burial sites and taking possession of human souls, according to superstition.

• The Bible relates the story of God commanding Joshua to create a memorial in Jordan comprising 12 stones that would represent the "children of Israel for ever." Thus, this symbolic stone representation of the people of Israel might have been echoed later in the practice of leaving pebbles and rocks on the headstones of the dead.

• A nomadic people, visitors to Jewish gravesites might have originally left stones to denote their visit and pay homage to the deceased simply because flowers and plants were not available. Because of the arid conditions prevalent in rocky or desert regions, visitors might have been forced to use whatever materials were at hand.

• Along those same lines, burying the deceased in rocky or desert areas often resulted in shallow graves that required covering the deceased with stones and rocks in order to complete the burial and/or to prevent predation. (Heaps of stone like this gave rise to the modern English word "cairn.") Thus, it is entirely possible that the use of visitor stones on Jewish graves resulted from the practice of "tidying up" gravesites by adding/replacing rocks and stones in order to maintain a burial spot.

• Stones -- particularly pebbles -- were often used in ancient times as a method of counting, including by shepherds trying to keep track of their flocks, who would keep the appropriate number of stones in a pouch/sling or strung on a string. Therefore, the ancient Judaic practice of leaving a visiting stone on the headstone or gravesite of a deceased loved one might have evolved from a simple system of counting the number of visitors the deceased received.

• Another theory suggests that Jewish priests could become ritually impure by contacting a deceased individual -- whether directly or by proximity. By using stones and rocks to mark a gravesite, therefore, visitor stones could have served as a warning to Jewish priests not to approach too closely.

• Perhaps the most profound (possible) origin of the custom of placing pebbles, stones and small rocks on Jewish graves involves the fact that flowers, plants, foodstuffs and other organic materials quickly wither or decompose, evoking the transitory nature of life. On the other hand, a pebble, stone or rock symbolizes the lasting permanence and legacy of the deceased in the hearts and minds of survivors. This might explain the adoption of leaving visitor stones on tombstones and gravesites by those outside of the Jewish faith, who view this tradition as an effective method of affirming their emotional and spiritual bond with a loved one despite their separation by death.

"What do Jews Believe about Life After Death" by Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben, Ph.D., December 2, 2011. http://ourki.org. Retrieved April 10, 2015. http://ourki.org/what-do-jews-believe-about-life-after-death

"Joshua 4." Bible, King James Version. Retrieved April 10, 2015. https://www.bible.com/bible/1/jos.4

Stories in Stone by Douglas Keister, 2004. Retrieved April 12, 2015. Author's collection.

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