Sunday, August 21, 2011

Pebbles on the Grave

When I converted to Judaism, something I learned very early on during a marathon of Jewish and Holocaust movies (not to mention the show Dead Like Me) was the tradition of placing stones on the graves or headstones of the deceased. Where I come from (Christian Middle America), flowers are the item of choice for visiting deceased loved ones. It was a ritual that we partook in every Memorial Day when we'd drive to Kansas City and visit the graves of my grandmother, grandfather, and other relatives buried there. We purchased the plastic, tacky memorial flowers and wreaths, and at some point, days or weeks later, someone would be forced to come through and remove the harmful-to-nature plastic concoctions. 

In 2008, on a genealogy roadtrip, I found the grave of my great grandfather and great grandmother.
Not knowing why, and knowing that they weren't Jewish, I placed stones on their graves.

I never asked anyone why Jews don't do flowers at funerals or gravesites; it was something Jews do. It's part of the choreography of death, following the timeline of shiva (the week-long period of mourning) and matzevah (unveiling of the tombstone). Why didn't I inquire? I might have Googled it, or I might have read about it in a book, but it became part of my personal choreography of being Jewish. Sometimes, we just don't think about the things we do. But perhaps we should.

So, when visiting the grave of a Jew, the custom is to place a small stone on the grave using the left hand. According to Wikipedia, "this shows that someone visited the gravesite, and is also a way of participating in the mitzvah of burial." Likewise, Rabbi Simmons of says, "we place stones on top of a gravestone whenever we visit to indicate our participation in the mitzvah of erecting a tombstone, even if only in a more symbolic way." According to Talmud BavliMasechet Mo'ed Katan, in Biblical times graves were marked with mounds of stones (an example being when Rachel died), so by placing or replacing the stones, one plays a role in perpetuating the existence of the site and the memory of that person buried there.

But the reality is that stones had been used forever for burial. In ancient times, bodies were covered with large boulders or stones to keep animals from picking away the flesh and desecrating the body. It likely didn't play any kind of religious or supernatural role, but more of a practical role. Perhaps our meaningful act of placing a stone on the grave of a Jew threads back to this practical set of origins. But when did that transition in understanding -- of practical to mitzvah-making -- happen? Who can be sure.

Today, to place a stone on a gravestone says, to me, that I was there, I remembered, and I cared. Ultimately, it's more about the visitor than the buried, I think. What do you think?

As an aside, matzevah actually means monument, and although there is no halachic obligation to hold an unveiling ceremony, in the 19th century it became a popular ritual. Some unveil the tombstone a year after the burial, some a week after the burial. (I've seen the former more than the latter.) In Israel, as it turns out, the stone is unveiled after shloshim, or the first 30 days of mourning.

This blog post came out of my beginning to read "Jerusalem, Jerusalem" by the author of "Constantine's Sword" in combination with finding out that a dear family friend, Zitta Weiss, passed away on August 17. Zitta was a survivor of the Holocaust and an amazing and memorable soul. My first shiva call ever was at the home of Zitta when her brother died. And now? I suppose I'm coming back to where my Jewish bereavement experience began. Back to Zitta's home, but to mourn the woman herself. She was born on May 5, 1929. Baruch Dayan ha'Emet.