I still remember the funeral of my grandmother Léa (aleha ha-shalom). It was a particularly rainy day, similar to the disposition of those present. Naturally, I cried a lot, being unable to find comfort in the words of my parents or those of the rabbi. But I still tried to move on with the event, because I knew it was important. Especially because it was the first time I attended a Jewish funeral. Something that turned out to be like nothing I had witnessed before.
But said difference wasn’t due to the prayers or speeches or food. I was already used to such things since birth. So what really caught my attention was the activity we did at the end: the placement of stones on the grave of my beloved bubbe (Yiddish; trad. “grandmother”).
I didn’t understand what was its purpose, since in my previous experiences only flowers were left. But there I was, marvelling at this brand new custom that was now bestowed upon me. I imagine that many Jewish children shared a similar sentiment when experiencing this deed for the first time. But non-Jews surely scratch their heads at this unique act.
So, to clear up this uncertainty, let’s respond to its main question: why do the Jews leave stones on the tombstones?
Now, despite being an ancient Jewish tradition, it’s hard to answer the motifs behind its implementation. Specially when considering that the act of putting stones or pebbles in graves lacks any basis in a Torah commandment. As such, many interpretations have been offered regarding the origin and importance of this ancient custom. Some of these are:
Warning for the Kohanim
During the times of the Temple in Jerusalem, the Kohanim (or Jewish priests) could become ritually impure by being 1.2 m (4 ft) close to a corpse. Consequently, ancient Jews marked tombs with rocks to indicate to the Kohanim the places they shouldn’t pass through.
According to the Talmud, after the death of a person, her/his soul continues to dwell for some time in the grave where she/he was buried. Therefore, placing stones in a grave keeps their soul down in this world; something that certain people find comforting. Another related interpretation suggests that the stones stops demons and golems from entering the tombs.
Preventing Gravestone Reading
On a more mystical level, the Talmud also tells us that reading the inscription on a tombstone can negatively affect the learning of the Torah. While Kabbalists explain that this warning generally applies only to the inscriptions that protrude from the tombstone and not to the words engraved on it, Rabbi Yosef Yuzpa ensures that leaving a stone on a tombstone helps prevent any undesirable consequence resulting from reading.
Hebrew Word Game
The Hebrew word for ‘pebble’ is tz’ror, which also means ‘bond’. Thus, when Jews enunciate the commemorative prayer El Malei Rachamim (trans. “God Full of Mercy” / “Merciful God”), we ask that those that have passed can “be bound in the bond of life”, tz’ror haHayyim. Then, by putting a pebble in the graves, we indicate our physical presence in the life of the deceased and that their memory continues to live inside and through us.
But, regardless of all these possible origins, most Jews agree that placing a rock on a tombstone is a way to honour those who have died. After all, by leaving behind a stone in the tombs, we keep their memories and offer a sign of the importance and love we still have for those who are no longer physically with us.
However, a supplementary question remains unanswered: why stones and not flowers, as is customary in other cultures?
According to Jewish thought, placing flowers is not the best way to remember the deceased. While people can enjoy the beauty of their physical environment during their lifetimes, once they die all beauty ceases to make sense and everything they ever knew is forgotten. Only the spiritual wealth they accumulated remains. And, similar to a rock, its permanence is forever.