Field Guide

Hebrew Symbolism

The Hebrew people have been memorializing their dead far longer than Christians. The earliest biblical reference to burial occurs in Genesis 23:6: Hear us, my lord: thou art a mighty prince among us: in the choice of our sepulchres bury thy dead; none of us shall withhold from thee his sepulchre, but that thou mayest bury thy dead. The actual erection of a monument to commemorate a specific person is first mentioned in Genesis 35:19-20: 19 And Rachel died, and was buried in the way to Ephrath, which is Bethlehem. 20 And Jacob set a pillar upon her grave: that is the pillar of Rachel's grave unto this day.

Hebrew tombstones do not have nearly the vocabulary of symbols as Christian tombstones, but their brevity is deceiving. On almost all Jewish tombstones, the father of the deceased person is written on the tombstone. This piece of information gives genealogists a step back one generation.

Dates are written in Hebrew according to the Jewish calendar, which starts with the Creation of the World. It was calculated by figuring the ages of people and events referred to in the Old Testament. That figure worked out to 3,760 years before the Christian calendar. Thus, the year 2000 in the Christian calendar would be 5760 (3760 + 2000) in the Hebrew calendar. Occasionally, the first 5,000 years are dropped. Thus, 5760 would be written as 760.

Taken from Stories in Stone: A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography written and photographed by Douglas Keister, published by Gibbs Smith, Salt Lake City, 2004.