Rabbi Marc Gellman writes about religion for Newsday.
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 uniquely Jewish. 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).
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 coffins 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 both 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, both 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.
We need to leave something behind when we visit a grave because we need to find some way to touch those we have lost. By placing a stone or flowers on the grave or headstone, we touch the earth, which touches the coffin, which touches the one we loved. Touching is how we show love in life, so it makes perfect sense to me that touching is how we show love after death.
When my good friend the Rev. Tom Hartman and I participated in the memorial service for those lost in the 1996 crash of TWA Flight 800, held at Smith Point Beach in Shirley, the families, without any prompting by us, all walked to the water and cast flowers into the waves -- their way of touching the beloved victims of the disaster.
The same need to touch even without a grave is now being movingly fulfilled by the engraved list of names at Ground Zero in the memorial garden and fountain for the victims of the 9/11 attacks in Manhattan. Seeing people trace the letters with their fingers and their hearts is profoundly moving.
One final thought about stones and flowers. The act of leaving something behind at a grave speaks two wordless spiritual truths. The first is that the deceased has family and friends who remember his or her life. The person may be dead, but they are not abandoned.
The second truth is that what we leave behind at a grave reminds us that we are not alone in life, and we are not alone in death. The love we plant when we are alive blooms and lives on in the lives of those who loved us.
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