The Symbol of the Stone

Why Jews traditionally bring pebbles, not flowers, to a gravesite

Q:Will you please explain the symbolism of placing stones on tombstones?
-- C. Lewis


A:

The practice of burying the dead with flowers is almost as old as humanity. Even in prehistoric caves, some burial grounds have been found with evidence that flowers were used in interment. But Jewish authorities have often objected to bringing flowers to the grave. There are scattered Talmudic mentions of spices and twigs used in burial (Berachot 43a, Betzah 6a). Yet the prevailing view was that bringing flowers smacks of a pagan custom.

That is why, today, one rarely sees flowers on the graves in traditional Jewish cemeteries. Instead there are stones, small and large, piled without pattern on the grave, as though a community were being haphazardly built. Walking in the military cemetery of Jerusalem, for example, one can see heaps of stones on the graves of fallen soldiers, like small fortresses.

For many of us, stones conjure a harsh image. It does not seem the appropriate memorial for one who has died.

But stones have a special significance in Judaism. In the Bible, an altar -- the holy place where one offers to God -- is no more than a pile of stones. When Abraham, following God's instructions, binds his son Isaac for sacrifice, he does this at a stone, called Even Hashtiyah, the "foundation stone of the world." And the most sacred shrine in Judaism, after all, is a pile of stones -- the wall of the second Temple.

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So stones have special meaning. But why place stones on the grave? The explanations vary, from the superstitious to the poignant.

There is a belief, with roots in the Talmud, that souls continue to dwell for a while in the graves in which they are placed. In the Eastern European folk imagination, these souls -- even those that were benign in life -- can take on a certain terror in death. The stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer and the plays of the Yiddish theatre, rich in the mythology of Eastern European Jewry, are filled with these types of hauntings: souls who returned, for whatever reason, to the world of the living.

The practice of leaving stones atop a grave can be explained as a response to these beliefs. More than a simple marker of one's visit, stones on the grave are the means by which the living help souls remain where they belong -- in the grave where they do no haunting.

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