Funeral and burial customs hold great significance to people. When someone dies, we seek comfort in familiar rituals and traditions.
Many burial practices are deeply rooted in culture and religion. When you grow up in a particular culture or religious tradition, it may be easy to forget the countless other customs that people have for special or important rites.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- What Elements Make Up a Jewish Headstone?
- 4 Types of Jewish Headstones
- Jewish Headstone Symbol and Design Ideas
If you attend a funeral for someone who comes from a different faith or background, you may be surprised by different funeral practices. It’s always good to take time to learn about traditions outside of your own.
Here, we give you some background in the traditions around Jewish headstones.
What Elements Make Up a Jewish Headstone?
There are different types of grave markers that can be used to mark the grave of a Jewish person. But no matter what style of headstone is used, there are certain characteristics you can expect to see. Overall, Jewish headstones tend to be simple in design. They are not typically ornate or over the top.
This is because they wouldn’t want to embarrass the families of people in surrounding graves who couldn’t afford a more opulent headstone. People should be going to a cemetery to mourn, not to think about how much a headstone costs. Jewish graves tend to feature headstones instead of footstones because the brain is the most important part of the body.
Jewish law also dictates that Jewish people should be buried in exclusively Jewish cemeteries. Jewish people should not be buried in cemeteries for people of mixed denominations. When you visit a Jewish cemetery, you’ll certainly observe similarities amongst the headstones.
4 Types of Jewish Headstones
Jewish gravestones (or matzevot) are available in different styles. Here, we learn more about the different styles of gravestones you might find in a Jewish cemetery.
1. Ohel-inspired gravestone
Rabbis and other important Jewish people are sometimes buried under a gravestone that is shaped like a tent. This tradition may be informed by a story from Genesis 18:6.
In that verse, Abraham is visited in a tent by angels. Ohel is the Hebrew word for tent, but according to Jewish law, any structure with a roof qualifies as an ohel. So a headstone or monument in the shape of a tent is often referred to as an ohel.
2. Gravestone with Ashlar facing
The city of Jerusalem features a monument that is an ancient limestone wall. It is known as the Western Wall or Wailing Wall, and it is considered a holy site in Judaism. Some Jewish headstones feature stone facing on them that is intended to emulate the masonry style of the Western Wall.
Ashlar is a type of masonry featuring thin, finely-cut rocks. They typically have smooth even faces and square edges, though they can use rough facing. Ashlar blocks are cut in a very precise day which leads to thin and delicate joints.
Jerusalem stone is a phrase used to describe certain types of rock, usually limestone and dolomite. Ashlar facing on Jewish headstones is usually made out of Jerusalem stone.
3. Vertical vs. horizontal gravestones
You will usually see a mixture of vertical and horizontal gravestones in a Jewish cemetery. You might assume that the different styles are just a matter of personal taste. But there’s actually cultural significance behind the differences. There are two main culturally Jewish subgroups, the Sephardi Jews and Ashkenazi Jews. Sephardi Jews originated in Spain, Portugal, North Africa, and the Middle East. Ashkenazi Jews originated in European countries including France, Germany, Hungary, Poland, and Russia.
Most Jewish headstones in the Sephardi tradition are horizontal rectangular slabs. Meanwhile, the Ashkenazi Jews traditionally erect a vertical slab gravestone with a top that is rounded or pointed.
Regardless of which style of headstone is used, you may see rocks on top of it. It is a tradition to place rocks on Jewish headstones. There are a few reasons behind this way of thinking. Some people believe that the soul of the deceased stays near the body after death. Placing rocks on a headstone prevents the soul from departing too soon. In ancient times, before headstones were used, graves were frequently marked with piles of rocks called cairns.
Over time, cairns could erode or rocks could be taken away. So people would bring rocks with them to build cairns back up when they visited a grave. Putting rocks on a headstone can echo that tradition. Generally speaking, the intent behind putting rocks on a Jewish headstone is to show that the deceased hasn’t been forgotten.
4. Eastern facing gravestones
Jerusalem is located east of Europe. When Jewish people pray, they tend to face east so that their prayers are oriented towards Jerusalem. In Jewish cemeteries, bodies are often buried so that their feet are facing east.
The idea behind this is that when the Messiah comes, Jewish people will be resurrected. This way that can rise and immediately start walking in the right direction. As a result of this burial practice, Jewish headstones are generally oriented towards the east.
Jewish Headstone Symbol and Design Ideas
Jewish headstones frequently feature symbols or images on them. Headstones in the Sephardi Jewish tradition sometimes feature angels or images from the bible. However, that is not permitted in the Ashkenazi tradition, because of its closeness to potential idol worship. But there are several symbols that would be appropriate for Jewish headstones in both cultural subgroups. These symbols can also be combined together. For example, a headstone could feature a bookshelf held up by lions.
Read on to learn more about those symbols and others:
Star of David
The Star of David (also known as the Shield of David or Magen David) is widely considered to be the primary symbol of Judaism.
It is a six-pointed star represented by two equilateral triangles layered on top of one another. The flag for the country of Israel features a Star of David in the center. The Star of David is frequently found on men’s headstones.
A menorah is a Hebrew lampstand which usually features six branches. There are places on it where seven candles can be rested. Menorahs are closely associated with the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah. In Judaism, there is something called a sanctuary lamp, or the Ner Tamid, which is Hebrew for eternal flame and it should always stay lit.
There’s a story in the Talmud, the primary text used in Jewish theology, about a sealed temple where there was only enough oil to light the sanctuary lamp for one day.
Miraculously, the oil burned for eight days until new oil could be made. This kept the flame from going out. Hanukkah menorahs feature eight branches to represent the eight nights the oil lasted. Menorahs are frequently featured on Jewish headstones as a beacon of hope and a symbol of unity. It is generally found on women’s headstones.
Like menorahs, candles and candlesticks are widely used on women’s headstones.
These candlesticks might feature two, three, or five branches. A broken candlestick on a headstone might represent a woman who died at a young age.
In Judaism, the Torah is the central and most important document. The word Torah can refer to the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, or it can refer to all the Jewish books in the Old Testament.
It can even be used to encapsulate all the stories and teaching encompassed within Judaism. Many Jewish headstones feature a book meant to represent the Torah. It is often used for people who have dedicated their lives to spiritual growth.
Tree of Life
The Tree of Life (also known as the Kabbalah) holds a great deal of significance in Judaism. It represents the path people take throughout their lifetime in order to find God.
The Kabbalah also represents the creation of the cosmos and is thought to be a map of the universe.
Cohen is the Hebrew term used for a priest. A symbol of two hands connected at the thumb and separated at the middle and ring fingers can symbolize the blessings of the Cohen.
A Jewish priest (or someone with a close relationship to a Jewish priest) might have the symbol of two hands on their headstone.
According to Jewish tradition, Jacob (who was also known by the name Israel) was the father of 12 sons. Each son represents one of the tribes of Israel.
Judah was the fourth son of Jacob, and his tribe is represented by a lion. Jewish people are said to have come from the tribe of Judah. So any lion symbolism is in deference to that origin story.
Bookshelves are a symbol of knowledge. A scholar or rabbi may have bookshelves on their headstone.
Demystifying Jewish Headstones
There’s a lot that goes into buying a headstone or grave marker. You want to honor the deceased in a special way that speaks to their personality. But you also want to ensure you’re abiding by any cultural or religious traditions that would have been significant to them.
Understanding different burial traditions can help you in planning a funeral. It can also help you be more well-informed when you visit a burial site.
If you're looking for more help planning a Jewish memorial or funeral service, read our guides on Jewish funerals, Jewish funeral prayers, and how to plant a tree in memory of a loved one in Israel.
- “Guide to Jewish Cemetery.” Cbtbi.org, Congregation B’Nai Tikvah Beth Israel Synagogue, www.cbtbi.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/Guide-to-Jewish-Cemetery.pdf.