The Jewish faith, as well as some others, have a wonderful and thoughtful custom of leaving a small stone on the grave. Placing a stone on the grave is an act of remembrance and serves as a sign to others that someone has visited the grave. It also enables visitors to honor the burial and the deceased.
Why stones you ask? Stones are lasting and fitting symbols of the lasting presence of the deceased’s life and memory. Why not Flowers? Flowers are a good metaphor for life. Life withers; it fades like a flower. For that reason, flowers are an apt symbol of passing, but while flowers may be a good metaphor for the brevity of life, stones seem better suited to the permanence of memory. Stones do not die.
There are many different stories cited as the historical origin of this tradition. The tradition may trace back to the Biblical times when graves were simply marked with small stone mounds. Since there were no gravestones back then, the mounds simply marked the location of the grave. In essence, the act of placing small stones on graves served as a way to preserve the gravesite so that as time passed, it could be found again. Adding a stone helped to build and maintain the mound. Over time, these mounds of stones were sometimes cemented together and became the the earliest forms of what we would call a grave monument.. There was a superstitious rationale that stones keep the soul down. So today, a stone left today helps preserve the grave, if only symbolically.
In ancient times, shepherds would carry a sling over his shoulder, and in it he would keep the number of pebbles that corresponded to the number in his flock. Today, we can keep the memory of our loved one in our sling.
More important, the Jewish faith considers leaving a stone a “mitzvah” which is best described as a commandment, but more importantly referring to a charitable, beneficial act performed by another person.
Leaving a small visitation stone was and is a wonderful symbolic gesture, a way for the visitor to say of the loved one or a stranger, “I remember you…..”. You too, next time you visit a cemetery, are invited to continue with this ancient custom of remembering.