The 1993 film Schindler’s List portrayed the story of a German businessman who saves the lives of hundreds of Jews during World War II. A scene at the end of the film depicts the surviving group of people Schindler saved from Nazi persecution (the “Schindler Jews”) each paying their respects for him by placing a small rock on his grave.
The origins behind this custom are steeped deep in Jewish history and culture. While no one has ever identified one specific explanation, here we’ll look at some possible theories on the roots of the custom within the Jewish community of the bereaved placing stones on the monuments of their loved ones.
It is a Jewish custom for the bereaved visiting a gravesite to place a single stone (or pebble, or small rock) on top of the grave of a friend or loved one. This is sometimes referred to as a “Visitation Stone.” The size of the stone is unimportant, so long as it is not so big that it rolls off the top of the grave. The stones are typically found somewhere in the cemetery by those mourning the person’s passing.
There are several possible explanations for this custom:
A stone is a solid object. One rather beautiful explanation is that stones are placed on graves because they are everlasting. They’re permanent and unchanging. The possibility exists that it could rest there for ages and ages, never falling away or fading. This is representative of the living’s memory of the dead.
Another explanation is that it is a simple way to honor the deceased. The stone could serve as a physical reminder that the deceased has not been forgotten by their loved ones. This custom runs contradictory to other cultures that place a premium on laying flowers on a grave. There has been speculation that this is due to the similarity of laying flowers to various pagan customs.
One theory posits that graves are marked with stones as a mitzvah (a deed done out of religious duty) so that kohanim (or priests) don’t accidentally step over a grave. The mitzvah is to mark the grave with a collection of rocks. Each mourner then adds to the collection.
The placement of the stone does more than act as a gesture of honor. It also alerts other visitors to the cemetery that someone has visited this grave. It may encourage others, including strangers, to visit the gravesite to learn more about the individual.
It’s a way to communicate to other visitors that the person resting here had friends, family, and loved ones. He or she was not alone.
According to the Talmud, a person’s soul remains with its body after passing. It can vary how long this lasts. One explanation for the laying of the stones is that those visiting the gravesite may have been using the stones as a weight to keep the soul from leaving this world before the time is right. There was also speculation that the pebbles were a way to fend off demons and other evil spirits as well.
The laying of stones at a gravesite is a poignant way for the Jewish people to remember the departed. While a single beginning point for the custom is unclear, what is clear is the eternal symbol the stone represents and what a touching way it is to remember those the Jewish community has lost.