Friday, February 6, 2009

Jewish cemeteries: Why do visitors leave stones?

Why is this grave covered with stones?

I recently returned from Israel with my confirmation class where we occasionally visited the graves of famous Zionists. The grave pictured is that of Israel's first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion. That of his wife, Paula, is adjacent.

Seeing this as a teaching moment, I offered the kids what I call an SAT word; in this case, “cairn.” defines a cairn as a heap of stones set up as a landmark, monument, tombstone.

Of course, as Jews, we’ve been leaving stones on tombstones for eons. We all perform this rite, but don’t always know why.

When looking for a good website to teach Jewish cemetery customs, I recommend the The Jewish Cemetery Association of Massachusetts (JCAM,) which offers the following explanation.

The Origins of Leaving A Visitation Stone

One of the most common Jewish cemetery customs is to leave a small stone at the grave of a loved one after saying Kaddish or visiting. Its origins are rooted in ancient times and throughout the centuries the tradition of leaving a visitation stone has become part of the act of remembrance.

The origin of this custom began long ago, when the deceased was not placed in a casket, but rather the body was prepared, washed, and wrapped in a burial shroud, or for a male, in his tallis (prayer shawl). Then the body would be placed in the ground, covered with dirt and then large stones would be placed atop the gravesite, preventing wild animals from digging up the remains. Over time, individuals would go back to the gravesite and continue to place stones, ensuring the security of the site and as a way to build up the “memory” of the loved one.

As time passed on, and carved monuments became the preferred memorial, the custom of leaving a visitation stone became a symbolic gesture–a way for the visitor to say to the loved one, “I remember you…..”.

JCAM provides for this custom on our cemeteries by filling receptacles with small stones for our visitors to leave, so you too, can continue on with this ancient custom of remembering.
Perhaps you have additional customs and explanations to offer?

Rabbi Gary M. Gans


  1. Consistently interesting posts.

    I like to carry a pocket of change with me when visiting cemeteries and deposit coins on graves that catch my fancy.

  2. What an inspiring post..thank you.

  3. Reader comments are so important to everyone on the Rabbit team. Thank you, DMT and JW, for writing in.

  4. I am glad to know why. Thanks for the teaching moment.

  5. Very interesting custom! Thanks for the
    educational post!

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  7. thank you I knew it happened but not the history behind it interesting XXX Don

  8. When a jew visits a grave he puts stones on it to show respect forthe deceased, that way when people pass by they can see that this man was respected since people visit his gravesite.
    I have never heard of placing coins on the grave, I don't know what the purpose of this would be. I think that giving the moey to charity would be more appropriate.

  9. Thank you for sharing and educating.

  10. thank you, great explanation!

  11. Thanks for the lesson. I always thought the placing of the stones had to do
    with the crossing of the Jordan River into The Promised Land (Canaan)
    when God told Joshua to pick twelve men, one from each tribe, to
    go to the middle of the river to get a stone to build a monument.
    So now they were placing a stone to show the crossing over
    into the Promised Land, The New Jerusalem (Heaven).

  12. I like the explanation, but wonder why it is peculiar to Jewish tradition? One sees the stones only in Jewish cemeteries.

  13. Thank you for the explanation. I need to go visit my grandparents' grave. I'd been thinking about gathering some nice colored stones, all the while wondering why I did it, other than being told to do so.

    Now I finally know, much appreciated!

  14. When I visit my parents' graves, I usually leave a Remembrance Stone on each with a message on the reverse side. Leaving a message makes my visit more meaningful and special.

  15. When I visit my parents' graves, I like to leave inscribed stones that I can personalize. For me, this is more meaningful than picking up stones from the ground. I can leave clean stones with a message and my name.