Once a year I try to accompany my mother to the cemetery to visit her parents’ graves. This year her cousin Robert joined us, to acknowledge the year’s passing since his mother, my Great-Aunt Sylvia died at nearly 101. While he didn’t have a formal unveiling ceremony, he wanted to share his memories and honor her.
Looking around the vast sea of headstones in the manicured park of mowed grass and clumps of trees, I noticed there wasn’t a flower in sight. Jews don’t adorn graves with flowers, opting instead to place small stones on the top. Though I’ve done this countless times in my visits here, I wondered why.
I consulted, as I often do when these kinds of questions arise, the erudite wisdom of Rabbi Internet, comparing sources my sons assure me are reliable.
Explanations vary. Here’s a sampling:
- It’s a mitzvah (good deed) to bury someone and mark his/her grave. Once a person is buried, we mark the grave by adding a stone, replicating the act of erecting a tombstone symbolically.
- Placing flowers is associated with pagan custom, therefore not consistent with Judaism.
- Stones give a sense of permanence unlike flowers that fade. Life is passing, like flowers. Memory is lasting; stones don’t die. The body, like a flower, blossoms and then fades away, but the soul, like a solid stone, lives on forever.
- Stones help the dead “stay put,” preventing the soul from haunting the living.
- The rich and the poor must be buried alike. (This is why all Jews—regardless of means—are buried in identical linen shrouds.) Placing flowers on the graves of the wealthy drives unnecessary barriers between the classes.
“They were so large in life, “ said Robert. And thinking of his mother, he added, “the hardest part is remembering that I can’t tell her things.”