Kinshasa Map

Star of David, Montmartre


All cultures have ways of continuing to memorialize their dead by leaving something at the gravesite. Some of the more popular items include flowers (real and artificial), immortelles (ceramic flowers), food, pictures, toys and notes. One of the most curious memorialization practices is the Jewish custom of leaving pebbles on and around the tombstone. The custom has become so well established that some Jews will bring pebbles and small stones from their travels to place on the tombstone. And, if pebbles are not available in the cemetery, coins and bits of glass are sometimes substituted. Nevertheless, the message is clear: at its most basic level, pebbles, like flowers, say that someone still cares and remembers. But why use stones? Like many folk customs, scholars say the origin of the practice is somewhat shadowy. What is clear is that using stones to memorialize a person or mark a place has gone on for thousands of years. In fact, because of the ready supply of durable materials, building rock cairns was one of the earliest methods man employed to mark important places.

Ultimately, the use of rocks and pebbles on graves is a practical matter. Graves in a rocky or sandy environment couldn’t be dug very deep. Rocky ground is hard to excavate, and sand collapses before it can be dug very deep. Thus, graves were often quite shallow, and rocks and pebbles needed to be placed over the grave to prevent the remains from being disturbed by animals. These rock mounds became grave markers by default because of the nature of their form

Jews were a nomadic people and, as such, traveled from place to place. When they passed the gravesite of a member of their tribe, it was entirely reasonable that they would do a bit of maintenance to that site, which, in an arid environment, would mean maintaining and, perhaps, adding to the stones. By extension, a nomadic people wouldn’t leave fragile plants or flowers on a grave since they would soon be moving on and unable to care for them Flowers, food, and other remembrances that are part of memorialization practices of other cultures were never part of early Jewish burial practices. Adding more rocks simply served the same purpose.

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