Every culture in the world has traditions and practices that are passed on for generations. In Judaism, people leave what we refer to as visitation stones on the gravesites of their loved ones. This practice can be observed in the final scene of the dramatic film known as Schindler’s List, in which WWII survivors and their offspring commemorate the grave of Oskar Schindler by leaving stones rather than flowers. People like us wonder how this custom started and survived centuries of religious persecution or cultural growth.
The Jewish Tradition of Visitation Stones
Although the tradition of leaving stones on the graves of ancestors, family members, and friends is ancient, its origins are uncertain and cannot be traced with complete confidence. There are many theories as to why Jewish people still practice this custom today, and we compiled all those explanations to investigate.
Protecting the Kohanim: During the restoration of the Second Temple in approximately 520 B.C.E., Jewish priests were believed to become ritually impure if they came within four feet of a corpse. To protect priests from accidentally stepping on or bending over an unmarked grave, Jewish people would build a pile of rocks over the grave and work collaboratively to maintain the marker by replacing or adding rocks.
Keeping the Soul Here: Another reason why Jews place pebbles on gravesites can be attributed to the Talmud’s treatment of the soul. According to the Talmud, a person’s soul dwells in and around the grave where he or she is buried. By placing stones on the grave of a restless soul, you can keep the soul safe in this world and protect the grave from being disrupted by demons, ghosts, and golems.
Longevity of Stones: Death is a fact of life for all living things. Unlike flowers, stones do not die or lose value with time. In fact, many cremation urns and upright monuments are made of stones and similar materials. Jewish people believe that pebbles and stones represent the permanence of memory and legacy.
Today, visitation stones are primarily used as symbolic gestures of remembrance and respect. Jews take plenty of time and special care in choosing a stone to place on the grave of a loved one.