The cemetery I walked through the other day has a large Jewish section. I love to walk around here and look at the pebbles placed on the headstones. I'm not Jewish, religiously or ethnically, but there are some Jewish customs that I find so meaningful and poignant that I compulsively follow them anyway. One of them is the tradition of placing a stone on a grave when I visit. I think the most well-known example of this tradition is that last scene from Schlinder's List - a movie I was completely moved by for reasons I won't go into here, but simply cannot watch again due to the fact that I am not capable of experiencing those emotions again. Basically, my opinion about Schlinder's List is if you haven't seen it you should; it will change you forever. But if you have seen it you can't watch it again, because you've been changed forever.


I was curious to know how the tradition got started and/or what it symbolized, other than to tell visitors that followed that others had also visited the grave. So I consulted my resident anthropologist and religious historian, Dr. Google (PhD) and found the following meanings. Enjoy.

When the tradition started, grave monuments were mounds of stones. Visitors added stones to "the mound" to show we are never finished building the monument to the deceased.

Symbolically, it suggests the continuing presence of love and memory which are as strong and enduring as a rock. One name for God is "The Rock of Israel." So the rock is a reminder of the presence of the Rock, Whose love truly is stronger than death.

It is a sign of respect for the dead and stems from the symbolism of making sure the burial site is noted by a stone marker. While adding a small stone doesn't really add a permanent marking to the site, it has evolved to be one way in which an individual indicates participation in the process of marking a grave.

It may be the end result of the custom of writing notes to the deceased and pushing them into crevices in the headstone just as notes are pushed into the Western Wall in Jerusalem. When no crevice can be found, the note is weighted down with a stone. In time, the paper disintegrates or blows away, leaving only the stone. Thus, some began to think that the leaving of a stone was the custom... and so it became the custom.

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 weigh down souls to remain where they belong -- in the grave where they do no haunting.

Another beautiful answer to the stones on graves question takes its cue from the inscription on many gravestones: the five-letter Hebrew abbreviation taf, nun, tsadi, bet, hey, which stands for "teheye nishmato tsrurah b'tsror haChayyim." This phrase is usually translated as "May his soul be bound up in the bounds of eternal life" - a phrase wishing for eternal life for the departed.

Tsror (the fourth word of the Hebrew phrase) can also be translated as "pebble." So suddenly, the phrase takes on a more nuanced meaning, based on the historical significance of pebbles.

In ancient times, shepherds needed a system to keep track of their flocks. On some days, they would go out to pasture with a flock of thirty; on other days a flock of ten; the third day with fifty. As memory was an unreliable way of keeping tabs on the number of the flock that day, the shepherd would carry a sling over his shoulder, and in it keep the number of tsror, or pebbles, that corresponded to the number in his flock. That way he could have an accurate daily count. When we place stones on the grave, and inscribe the motto above on the stone, we are asking God to keep the departed's soul in God's sling. Among all the souls whom God has to watch over, we wish to add the name, or the "pebble," of the soul of our departed.

references here