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The God Squad: How do we best remember the dead?

March 28, 2014|By Rabbi Marc Gellman

A Facebook friend recently posted a question about the meaning behind the Jewish tradition of placing stones on graves.

Andrew is both a sculptor and a carver of memorials, so perhaps his question arises not only from professional curiosity but also from an artist's sensitivity — or maybe he just wonders, "What's up with the rocks?" .

The Jewish custom of placing stones on the headstones of the deceased seems to me to be a unique Jewish custom. The headstone itself is of biblical origin. When Rachel, the beloved wife of Jacob, died on the road to Bethlehem giving birth to her second son, Benjamin (her first son was Joseph), Jacob buried her and "set up a marking stone (Hebrew: matzevah) on her grave. The same marking stone that is on Rachel's grave to this day" (Genesis 35:20).

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There is, however, no clear history of the origin of the custom of leaving small stones on the matzevah. All I can tell you is that this is the custom Jews follow.

Jews also don't bring flowers to the grave. This is for the same reason that Jewish caskets cannot be made of metal, and for the same reason that Jewish wedding rings cannot contain precious stones but must be simple gold bands.

Jewish values try always to avoid customs that separate rich people from poor people. Funerals and weddings should be the same for everyone. I know that this is rarely the case with weddings, but it seems to me to be a particularly important value to preserve at funerals, where the fact that we carry nothing away with us when we die is profoundly unifying.

Jewish and Muslim customs do not allow flowers at funerals or during private visitations to the grave because flowers are expensive and wither quickly. Christian customs for funerals and for visiting a grave do allow flowers.

I like flowers, but I follow Jewish customs to honor the traditions of my ancestors. However, I don't like nor do I understand the use of plastic flowers. Since they're not vulnerable to decay, they seem particularly out of place on a grave.

On the broadest and deepest spiritual level, stones and flowers seem to me to address a basic human need related to visiting the dead. We need graves because we need a special place to go to visit. By burying in the ground, we create a holy place where our grief and our memories are easier to focus. Cremation may be an eco-friendly choice, and I know it's becoming much more popular, but it deprives us of holy places where death and life can commune.

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