Question:

I was visiting the gravesite of my mother, and I noticed that some tombstones had small rocks or pebbles on top of them. What is the reason for this?

Reply:

Some have made the claim that this is a relatively new custom,1 but while it is not necessarily a universal or even a Chabad custom,2 it is indeed an old Jewish practice that goes back at least to medieval times and possibly earlier.3

Why Is It Done?

There are a number of reasons given for this custom, on both a basic level as well as a more esoteric one:

  • By placing a rock or a pebble on top of the tombstone, we honor the deceased by letting people know that the gravesite has recently been visited.4 When others notice the rocks, they will see that this is a grave visitors frequent, and they too will take an interest in who is buried there, and perhaps will visit the gravesite themselves.5
  • On a more mystical level, the Talmud tells us that reading the inscription on a gravestone can adversely affect one’s Torah learning.6
    While the Kabbalists explain that in general this warning applies only to inscriptions that protrude from the tombstone and not words engraved into it,7 Rabbi Yosef Yuzpa Hahn (1570–1637) cites a tradition that placing a stone on the tombstone also helps to avoid any undesirable consequences that would result from reading a tombstone.8
  • The placement of the stone serves as an invitation of sorts for a spark of the departed to come down and rest upon the tombstone for the duration of the visit.9

Why Not Flowers?

While placing a rock on a tombstone is an old Jewish custom, placing flowers at a gravesite is not. In life, people may enjoy the beauty of their physical surroundings, but when they die, all of their material possessions and beauty are meaningless and left behind. It is only their accumulated spiritual wealth that remains immortal, just like a rock, which stays forever.

To learn more about why Jews don’t place flowers at a gravesite, see Flowers, Jews & Gravesites and Why No Flowers on Jewish Graves?