We place stones on grave markers at cemeteries. Why?
There are many answers and explanations for this, but the earliest understanding hearkens back to this week’s Torah portion (Parashat Vayishlach, Genesis 32:4-36:43). We read that Jacob and his family was in transit from Beth-el, when Rachel suffered a difficult childbirth while delivering her son, Benjamin. Thereafter, Rachel died. The Torah states then, “And Jacob set up a pillar upon her grave; the same is the pillar of Rachel’s grave to this day.” [Gen 35:20]
Jacob was not able to bury Rachel in the family burial site in Hevron, in the Cave of Machpelah, because they were still more than a day’s journey away. Thus, he was compelled to bury her where they had stopped for her labor, which was just north of present-day Bethlehem. Still, to this day, a monument stands at the site of the kever Rachel, the grave of Rachel. Jacob placed the pillar there so that he and his descendents could locate the grave in later days, as Rachel was the only matriarch or patriarch not entombed in the Cave.
So, why do we place stones on our markers, today? There are three explanations.
Firstly, it is an old custom from ancient days. Gravestones can crumble and deteriorate, and it was a custom to build up what nature and time would tear down. Thus, people would pile-up stones on a marker. Secondly, in medieval times when superstition was rampant, it was believed that restless souls from underneath would come above in the wee hours of the morning. Should they spy a stone on the marker, they were comforted that someone had come to visit, and they returned, reassured. Lastly, in today’s humanistic times, similarly when we place a stone upon the grave marker after we visit the grave, it serves as a sign for the next visitor that someone had been present.
We are all descendents of Jacob. Placing a marker or a stone upon the grave is our way of remaining connected to the one whom we have lost. Meeting that need for connection palliates the emptiness or loss which follows death, and which is stirred by visiting the graveside. We feel better by leaving that something behind.
My late mother taught that we never visit someone’s home empty-handed. Nor do we go to the cemetery empty-handed.
Rabbi Douglas Kohn