Stones on Graves: The Jewish Burial Tradition Explained

Updated

Rocks and stones have long been a way for people to honor their dead. Traditionally, they’re a way to mark the burial site in order to find it later. There are headstones and gravestones in just about every cemetery, and these are a time-tested practice. One of the most common burial traditions in the Jewish custom also involves stones on graves. 

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Unique to Jewish tradition, people place pebbles, stones, and other small rocks on graves. There are a number of stories and superstitions surrounding this practice, though each family likely has their own take on this practice. In this guide, we’ll uncover the tradition behind stones on Jewish graves and other methods of Jewish condolences.

Meaning of Putting Stones on a Grave

Why are these small stones placed on graves? With the gravemarker itself (i.e. the headstone) already being made of stone, why are smaller stones stacked on top? 

This tradition goes back centuries. It’s dated so far in the past that there’s no longer a single consensus on the explanation. However, a number of theories exist as to why this is such a common part of Jewish funeral traditions

Protect souls of the dead

One of the first explanations is from the Talmud (the written compendium of Jewish oral tradition). This reading suggests that the soul remains in the body for several days, weeks, or even a year after death.

Some believe the soul waits until the final judgment. In the meantime, mourners place stones on the graves to keep the soul from leaving its burial site. 

Keep evil spirits out

Another reason is that Jewish people wanted to keep evil spirits and demons from these gravesites. According to superstition, demons have the power to take possession of human souls. Placing pebbles and rocks on the grave prevents these souls from taking over the souls of their loved ones. 

Pay homage to family members

A common belief is that leaving stones is a way to pay homage to the deceased. In the past, Jewish people were nomadic. Because they lived in arid conditions, visitors didn’t have flowers or other ways to leave a sign that they visited the gravesite. Rocks and stones were left because this was all they had at the time. 

Finish the grave

In addition, in rocky, desert areas, shallow graves were common. Because it was difficult to dig into the earth, stones and rocks would cover the bottle to complete the burial. Future visitors would “clean” graves by refreshing these rock coverings. 

When someone visits a grave, the site of rocks on the tombstone shows this is a site visited frequently. This is a sign that the deceased person is in his or her family’s thoughts. 

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History of Putting Stones on a Grave

As you see from the list of meanings above, there is a lot of diversity in the reasons why Jewish people continue to place stones on graves. Ultimately, the truth likely lies somewhere in the middle. Historically, placing stones on graves was a practical solution. 

This likely began because things like flowers, food, and other materials decompose quickly. Pebbles and rocks symbolize the legacy of the deceased in the hearts of family members. While flowers have become the symbol of death today, this was previously a pagan custom. It’s since spread to Christianity, while Jewish people are still more likely to place rocks on graves. 

There is no single start date for this practice. It’s only known that it’s been a part of Jewish burial tradition for thousands of years. Like the stone itself, this is a tradition that endures through time and change. 

Flowers might be a gift to the living, but they’re not a reflection of the impact we make on this earth. They fade quickly, leaving behind nothing at all. The soul is solid like stone. It lives on forever, and this is the legacy Jewish people want to leave for their families. 

Jewish Funeral Tradition

Mourners in Judaism act quickly. Burials typically take place within 24 hours of death, if possible. Unlike other religions, music and flowers are not permitted as part of the funeral ceremony. The event is usually very simple and straightforward. The burial casket itself is plain, usually just wood. The family takes part in helping fill the grave with dirt.

As part of mourning, the family reflects during what’s known as sitting shiva. This is the process of private mourning and reclusion and lasts around seven days. Like the placing of stones on the grave, these traditions stand through the ages. There is no focus on flowery language, music, or celebration. It’s simply a time to reflect on the deceased and their memory. 

The placing of stones on the grave of loved ones fits with the Jewish burial tradition. Stones are simple but strong. They last hundreds or thousands of years. Though Jewish people are now located across the globe, this culture traditionally lived in a desert climate.

The use of stones and pebbles today pays tribute to those who passed before them, connecting the living and dead through shared traditions.

Schindler’s List and the Stones on Schindler’s Grave

One of the most well-known representations of this practice occurs at the end of the film Schindler’s List. In the final scene, everyone visits the grave of Oskar Schindler. Everyone places stones on the grave, as per the tradition explained above. However, Liam Neeson places roses on the grave instead. 

About Schindler’s List

Schindler’s List is a movie based on the real-life experience of Oskar Schindler, a wealthy businessman who used his status with the Nazi party to protect the lives of hundreds of Jews during the Holocaust. Throughout his time with the Nazi party, Schindler saved over 1,000 Jewish people from death camps. 

In the final scene of the film, actors and Holocaust survivors pay tribute to this heroic man. Today, his grave in Jerusalem is still a popular place for people of all backgrounds and religions to honor his actions in the face of evil. If you visit his grave, you’ll discover it’s covered in rocks and stones as a sign of respect. 

Stones and roses

Stones aren’t the only thing placed on the grave at the end of Schindler's List. In the final scene, Neeson places roses instead of stones on the grave. This ending scene of this film puzzled many, and Neeson himself offered an explanation for his actions. 

While the Holocaust survivors follow Jewish burial custom of placing stones on the grave, Neeson wished to pay respects through the placement of roses. The tradition of pebbles and stones belong to the Jewish people, and he wished to respect these boundaries by using another symbol of respect.

Schindler was Catholic, so the placing of flowers on his grave was not against his religious beliefs. 

Stones on Graves Today

It is still common to place stones and other rocks on graves today. In fact, many people outside of the Jewish faith appreciate and respect the practice of placing stones on graves. It’s become common in Christianity as well as other traditions across the globe. 

As times change and traditions modernize, these lines are breaking down between what’s acceptable in both Jewish and other traditions. Ultimately, people should feel comfortable choosing whatever burial practices that matter most to them. These practices are not for the dead. They’re a way to help the surviving family heal and remember. 

A Tribute that Lasts Forever

Stones are stronger than flowers. They don’t wilt away over time, and they’re found virtually everywhere on earth. The Jewish people, likewise, are strong. They’ve lasted through adversity and genocide. Today, the tradition of placing pebbles or stones on graves serves as a reminder of this strength. 

Because of the beautiful meaning behind this burial practice, many people of other religious and cultural backgrounds place rocks on graves. The next time you take a stroll through a cemetery, keep an eye out for these small reminders of times long past.

While they hold many meanings, they also are a symbol of strength, persistence, and family ties. How do you want to be remembered? Start end-of-life planning today to answer these questions for yourself.

Want to learn more? Read our complete guide on Jewish headstones.


Sources

  1. “FAQ.” IMDB: Schindler’s List. IMDB.com.
  2. Golinkin, David. “Why is it customary to place a stone on a grave?” The Schechter Institutes. Volume 11, Number 3. Schechter.edu
  3. Orzech, David. “Placing Stones on Graves.” Ohr Somayach. Ohr.edu.
  4. “Putting Stones on Jewish Graves.” Jewish Virtual Library: Death and Bereavement in Judaism. Jewishvirtuallibrary.org.

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