Historical and Cultural Context
Jewish people leave small and large stones on the graves of their loved ones when visiting the burial site. While this may seem a harsh practice compared to leaving flowers at gravesites, for Jews, it is a symbol of love and honor. While its origins and initial meaning are unknown, the practice goes back thousands of years.
There may be a connection between the stones placed and historical burial traditions. In the past, large stones would be placed on the gravesite to prevent wild animals from damaging it. After the burial, the deceased’s family members would return to the grave and add more stones to ensure the site was secure and as a gesture to honor the memory of the deceased.
Another historical interpretation from the First Temple period (1200-586 BC) theorizes that the stones were placed to inform Jewish priests (kohanim) that the place was a burial site. According to Jewish tradition, priests would become impure if they came within four feet of a dead body.
Today, the tradition of leaving stones on a grave symbolizes showing respect to the deceased and serving as an indicator that someone has visited the gravesite.
Symbolic Meaning of Stones on Graves
Placing stones on graves has a significant symbolic meaning. A person visiting a grave shows they remember and commemorate the deceased by leaving stones on their grave.
Several symbolic interpretations exist when it comes to this practice. The Talmud texts mention that following a person’s death, their soul dwells in the grave after the burial. Placings stones would keep the soul down in this world, which some people may find comforting. Other interpretations refer to the protective properties of stones that keep golems and demons away from the grave. Finally, Torah scriptures often use stones as a metaphor for God.
Modern-day Jews keep the stone tradition alive. If you walk past a Jewish cemetery, you’ll notice small pebbles or even large stones piled on top of or beside grave or burial markers. Leaving stones brings comfort to people who lost their loved ones. The practice is also a meaningful way to connect with the Jewish community and heritage both in the Holy Land and diaspora.
The Hollywood Forever cemetery offers burial services and commemoration for the Los Angeles Jewish community at Beth Olam Jewish Cemetery. Visit the official page to learn more about the services in one of California’s oldest and most historic Jewish cemeteries.