The Tombstone, the Unveiling, and Visiting the Grave

Customs surrounding the Jewish grave show honor toward the deceased and reflect the teaching that all are equal in death.

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It is customary, before leaving the gravesite, to place a small stone on the marker to indicate that someone has visited the grave. This tradition may also reflect the biblical practice of marking the grave with a pile of stones. Or, it may be the end result of the custom of writing notes to the deceased and pushing them into crevices in the headstone just as notes are pushed into the Western Wall in Jerusalem. When no crevice could be found, the note was weighted down with a stone. In time, the paper disintegrated or blew away leaving only the stone. Thus, some began to think that the leaving of a stone was the custom... and so it became the custom.

Visiting the Grave

While visitation of the grave is permitted at almost any time, excessive visits are discouraged. "The rabbis were apprehensive that frequent visiting to the cemetery might become a pattern of living thus preventing the bereaved from placing their dead in proper perspective" (The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning, Maurice Lamm, p. 192).

It is considered especially appropriate to visit the graves of loved ones on the last day of shiva [the first seven days of intensive mourning] and the last day of sheloshim, on Yahrzeit [the yearly anniversary of a person's death], on Jewish fast days, and before or between the High Holy Days. Traditional Jews will often recite psalms while visiting, study a short passage from the Mishnah [an early rabbinic legal code], or recite "El Maleh Rahamim."

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Barbara Binder Kadden

Barbara Binder Kadden is the Director of the Jewish Educational Council of Seattle, Washington.