Question:

I have noticed that the graves of Orthodox Jews don’t have photographs of the deceased on them. Is there a reason for this?

Answer:

Around the turn of the 19th century, it had become the vogue for people to engrave images of the deceased upon their tombstones. It happened that this was done for a Jewish person, and the issue was brought before Rabbi Moshe Sofer of Pressburg (1762–1839), known as the Chatam Sofer.

Based on the biblical injunction against creating idols, depicting angels or the heavenly spheres, or carving out the human form, he ruled that it was strictly forbidden to fashion human images on gravestones. (The exact parameters of which images are forbidden are discussed in the Code of Jewish Law.)

Another concern was that people often go to the resting place of their beloved relatives to pray to G‑d and to beseech the deceased to pray on behalf of the living. Praying toward a stone monument with an image of a human on it would bring us dangerously close to appearing like idolaters. This is especially salient, he added, when one considers the common practice of Christians to engrave icons on their headstones.

For these reasons, among others, Rabbi Sofer ruled that such image-engraved tombstones that had been already installed should be removed, or at least disfigured, if that could be done without causing a dispute. If neither of these could be achieved, it is forbidden to say any prayers in that place—such as the kaddish or Psalms.

So, what about a photograph: would Rabbi Sofer have allowed it? While the issue of a graven image may not apply, the issue of placing a human image in a place of worship most certainly would. And for this reason, it is not Jewish practice to have photos placed on headstones.


Sources:
Code of Jewish Law, Yoreh Deah 141; Responsa of the Chatam Sofer 6:4; Responsa of Maharam Schick, Yoreh Deah 170; Responsa Mateh Levi 68.