Field Guide

Pebbles

All cultures have ways of continuing to memoralize 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 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.

The Old Testament is packed with references of stones being used to cover or mark graves. The first instance of a single stone is the pillar that Jacob erected over Rachel's grave in Genesis 35. One of the earliest references to using multiple stones to make a memorial is found in Joshua 4:

1 And it came to pass, when all the nation were clean passed over the Jordan, that the LORD spoke unto Joshua, saying,
2 Take you twelve men out of the people, out of every tribe a man,
3 And command ye them, saying, Take you hence out of the midst of the Jordan, out of the place where the priests' feet stood, twelve stones made ready, and carry them over with you, and lay them down in the lodging place, where ye shall lodge this night.
4 Then Joshua called the twelve men, whom he had prepared of the children of Israel, out of every tribe a man;
5 And Joshua said unto them, Pass on before the ark of the LORD your God into the midst of the Jordan, and take you up every man of you a stone upon his shoulder, according unto the number of the tribes of the children of Israel;
6 That this may be a sign among you, that when your children ask in time to come, saying, What mean ye by these stones?
7 Then ye shall say unto them, Because the waters of the Jordan were cut off before the ark of the covenant of the LORD; when it passed over the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off; and these stones shall be for a memorial unto the children of Israel for ever.
8 And the children of Israel did so as Joshua commanded, and took up twelve stones out of the midst of the Jordan, as the LORD spoke unto Joshua, according to the number of the tribes of the children of Israel, and they carried them over with them unto the place where they lodged, and laid them down there.
9 Joshua also set up twelve stones in the midst of the Jordan, in the place where the feet of the priests that bore the ark of the covenant stood; and they are there unto this day.

Thus, stones are a powerful symbol of the "people of Israel".

The use of rocks and pebbles on graves, ultimately, 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; hence the need to place rocks and pebbles 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.

It should be noted that the Jews were a nomadic people and, as such, traveled from place to place. When they passed a gravesite of a member of their tribe it was entirely reasonable that they would do a bit of maintenance to the 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 rememberances that are part of memorialization practices of other cultures were never part of early Jewish burial practices. Adding more rocks (already established as a symbol of "people of Israel") simply serves the same purpose.

There are many other pebble theories, but on close inspection, those theories may have evolved after the custom was already well in place. Several popular theories include the following: 1) the priestly Cohanim were not allowed to touch the dead, so rocks were placed over the deceased, 2) pebbles were used as an early form of counting and pebbles on a tombstone simply count visitors, and 3) because of their durability, stones represent the immortality of the soul.

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.