Friday, April 6, 2012

Leaving Stones on Graves


If you spend much time in a cemetery, you’re bound to see them - those stones left on graves.  I’ve noticed that they are usually left on Jewish graves.  But as for the significance, I didn’t know – until now.


There are several explanations as to why visitors leave small stones or pebbles on someone’s grave.  And it is not strictly a Jewish tradition.  For thousands of years, people were buried in tombs or directly in the earth where they had fallen. Stones were then rolled in front of a tomb as a way of sealing it from scavengers and keeping evil spirits from escaping out into the world.

Cairn
For those buried in the ground, rocks and stones were placed on top of the usually shallow grave to keep animals from digging up the body. These stacks of stones were known as cairns.   Cairns can be found all over the world and vary in size from a few rocks to man-made hills. 

Cairn Sculpture
Cairn Memorial
Cairns were built not only as funeral monuments but also for ceremonies and defense.  Today they are still constructed to mark trails, as seamarks, as sculpture, and as memorials.



Another reason rocks were left on the grave was based on an Eastern European folklore belief that the dead could haunt their burial place, or return to their family and cause trouble.  Stones and rocks were used to prevent the deceased from rising up and escaping the body as a spirit, to torment others.


It is also a Jewish custom to place a stone or pebble on a headstone to indicate that you have visited the grave and to indicate respect for the deceased.  Adding a stone was also seen as taking part in the Mitzvah of Matzevah or the ‘setting of stone.’ 

Today, leaving a stone of remembrance is viewed more as a way of continuing this tradition of commemoration.  The more stones found at a grave, the more the deceased has been visited and remembered by others.  An example would be the scene in Schindler’s List when the people that Oskar Schindler saved visit his grave and honor him by placing stones upon it.

Symbolically, the stones can indicate many things; that love and remembrance are as strong and as lasting as a rock.  That as a stone lasts forever so to does love.   Even a belief that the deceased is with God, since the Old Testament refers to God as a rock, as in Psalm 18:2 -- "The Lord is my rock…”


Regardless of how the custom came about, it is still an incredible way to remember and respect those who have passed on. Leaving a stone or pebble is a gesture of appreciation for the strong and lasting impression they have made on your life. Stones left by others show a long-term influence in their lives as well.  What a wonderful way to leave a lasting tribute of love and honor at the grave site.

~  Joy