Thursday, October 23, 2008

Cemeteries: Stones also speak

Contributor Daniel Horowitz of Israel is originally from Caracas, Venezuela. He is the Horowitz Family Association webmaster and board member and webmaster of the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies (IAJGS).

Jewish cemeteries provide documents - not written on paper but on stone - that can provide critical genealogical information.

A tombstone is:
A Monument
A Work of Art
A Bit of our History

The gravestones are called, in Hebrew, matzeva (singular) or matzevot (plural) and generally contain each individual's basic information. They contain fascinating and useful information about the deceased person.

What can you learn by visiting a Jewish cemetery?

The information on the tombstone generally reveals:
- The deceased's secular given name and family name.
- The Hebrew given name.
- Hebrew name of the deceased's father.
- Date and place of birth.
- Date and place of death.
- Surviving relatives.

If the tombstone reads: "To our beloved husband, father, grandfather and brother," it means that he had a wife, children, grandchildren and brothers/siblings still living after the person died.

Tombstone of Chaim Yosef (Yonel) & Czarna (Chanka) Ciobotaro,
Herev Leet, Israel (Courtesy, Ciobotaro family)

When visiting a Jewish cemetery:

- Don't visit on a Friday (you will have less time), Saturday or Jewish holidays (it will be closed).

- Bring sufficient charts (or simple paper and pencil) to record the data.

- Bring a camera to photograph tombstones. Take some photos of the surroundings to identify the grave's location. Photograph the map of the cemetery (if there is one) to later mark the grave's exact location.

- Bring candles, matches, a prayer book, and some small stones. It is a Jewish tradition when visiting a grave to light a candle, place a small stone (for remembrance) and say a prayer.

- Bring gloves, gardening tools and old clothes. Clothing can be easily soiled or torn in an overgrown cemetery, and you may have to clean and prune around the tombstone to read it.

- Look at the graves near the one you are visiting. In general, relatives are buried in the same area. You may never know who is buried nearby unless you check the area.

- If there is a cemetery office, ask for any available additional information. You can always find somebody willing to help you.

Adapted from the study guide "Searching for My Roots" Copyright © 2005 Daniel Horowitz. All rights reserved. ISBN: 978-965-91237-1-1, Israel.


  1. Schelly, this is going to be a great blog! I was thinking of becoming a GYR myself but I just don't have the time.

    I recently posted about my grandfather's tomb in Beltsy, Moldova on my blog (inc. picture) here:

    I have a few more posts in me about this topic and if you'd like, I can send you the links when I put them up.

    Thanks, Amir

  2. Now I'm on a roll. I wrote another post about holocaust memorials here: