Leaving Pebbles or Stones on a Grave Marker

The Jewish tradition of leaving a pebble or stone on top of a tombstone signifies that someone has honored the deceased person’s memory with a visit to the grave. A nice example of this is shown at the end of the movie Schindler’s List.

photograph showing stones left on a Jewish tombstone from Fairmount Cemetery, Denver, Colorado

Photo: from Fairmount Cemetery, Denver, Colorado

For more information on this tradition see: Why do we place pebbles on grave stones? by Rabbi Tom Louchheim

47 Responses to Leaving Pebbles or Stones on a Grave Marker

  1. jolie says:

    i just stumbled upon your site and think it’s really nice! i’ve added it to the links section of my own.

  2. Roderick Sprague says:

    I would like to quote this as a source in a future publication, but I would like to quote Joe by his /her full name. See my Burial Terminology: A Guide for Researchers (pp. 117, 143) for some other views I found in the literature and from informants on the pebble question. Excellent photogoraph. Rick

  3. E Herbig says:

    I once asked a friend of mine who is better educated than I am about this. He told me that it commemorates the gathering of family and friends to mourn the deceased. In ancient times when a person was buried out in the desert it was difficult to bury them deeply, and sad to say, scavengers and predators were a constant problem. So mourners usually brought stones with them when they came so that they could pile them onto the grave to discourage animals from digging up the body. The modern tradition of placing a small stone on a grave to honor the deceased seems to me to show how many people visit the grave, thus showing how much the deceased was loved in life, and also harkens back to an ancient tradition which shows respect for the mortal remains.
    I have often considered placing a small stone on my mother’s grave in a Catholic cemetery. I wonder what would happen to it.

    • maria says:

      I just think that is a great thing to do!! I would like to start doing that when i visit love ones!! I too am a Catholic and I don’t see anything wrong with it! I so plan to ask our priest about it though! God bless you

    • pete says:

      Nothing will happen to it I have seen it in cemetery’s all over the united states .at my mother and fathers graves at the end of each year I put all the stones in a bucket now again I need a larger bucket or nice container.They were wonderful people and the stones are a nice reminder that we have not forgotten.Hod Bless

      • pete says:

        We are also Catholic and it has been a tradition now for over 35 years.

      • Alton says:

        I recently visited Bonaventure in Savannah, GA. There were numerous headstones, both protestant and jewish alike, with small stones/pebbles left atop. I remembered seeing this at the end of the movie “Schindler’s List”. I think it is a terrific gesture… a sign of love and respect.

    • msb says:

      I leave a stone on top of the headstone w/I visit my parents grave. I too, am a christian but let us remember Christianity grew from Judism. Judism has many beautiful traditions and customs and this is one of them. Go ahead place a stone.

    • Lydia Wiliams says:

      E Herbig, Thank you for giving a lil bit of history. I knew it was a custom of Jewish descent but wasnt sure how it all started. Thank you I think thats pretty awesome. I personally dont think it’d be a bad idea if you put it on your mothers grave in a Catholic cemetery. Maybe I could try on my husbands who is Baptist?

    • Carlos says:

      I just visited a Benedictine (Catholic) cemetary that is part of a monastery in the desert. It is used for the Benedictine monks who have passed away. All of the upright crosses on the headstones had rocks and stones. I wondered if they had any significance, which is how I stumbled here.

      And to answer your question, yes, apparently Catholics also practice this tradition.

  4. Russ Dean says:

    On many cemetery markers theirs symbols (masons, knights of Columbus, whatever) I wonder if their was or is a symbol to indicate the person buried was a genealogist? Wouldn’t be great to indicate maybe to a future family member that you did that? Lets just say they might be doing a family tree and they see that symbol and they think “hey my great uncle did a family tree I’m going to try to find it too” What do you all think?

    • Sandy says:

      I’m a little slow to reply 🙂 but I think it is a great idea….like the tree that LDS uses or something

  5. abba-dad says:

    For as long as I can remember, whenever I went to a cemetery one of the first things I would do was look for a stone to put on the grave at the end of the visit. I never really thought about it until now.

    Another thing that I can think of that we do is approach and leave the grave site from two different directions. This way if you walk to the grave from the right, you leave to the left. I have no idea what that one means either.

  6. Joe Mann says:

    Interesting…I always had a vague idea that this was a Jewish tradition and yet my family who is Catholic has placed pebbles on the grave markers of loved ones for some time and I’ve seen them sitting atop other markers in Catholic cemeteries, too! Maybe it’s creeping into popular custom as well. It always perks me up a bit when I visit a loved one’s grave and find more stones there than the last time I visited. I make sure to bring one pebble for each person I’m visiting.

    Also the (non Jewish) cemeteries seem to have a sense of what we’re doing because I’ve never seen any of the pebbles removed.

  7. Cynthia Zimmerman says:

    This is such a beautiful and meaning custom. The stones are so well though out and meaningful. I used to simply pick up a stone from the area but it means so much more to me to have one that is designated just for my loved one. Thank you for making these and adding to the tradition.

  8. Nelle says:

    I always wondered why there was a stone or two on my family’s tombstone…and thought it was a sign that my uncle had been there since I often saw stones on his grand daughter’s tombstone, as well. Thanks to this website I now know the historical significance and also found on another website that Rachel’s sons left stones to build her tomb. I love that it has become a part of ecumenical customs. I will now use this tradition to honor my deceased loved ones.

  9. ken osterhout says:

    I was in Israel about a decade ago and near a cemetary and noticed pebbles on top of gravesites. All that I knew about it then was that it is a Jewish Tradition and really liked it.
    On 4/28/09 my Precious wife of 42yrs went to her heavenly reward and am telling my family and friends about these pebbles so they might do it.
    I’ve done a little research and find this custom to be most interesting and comforting in my loss.

  10. ltilley says:

    A long time ago I read a story (Irish) that a man going off to war would leave a stone in a pile. . When he returned home from the war he would retrieve a stone. Because many men were killed in the war, stones remained and most likely the pile grew over time. The stones served as a reminder or sort of a monument to those men killed in the war.

    My grandchildren, my husband and I have painted a picture or message on small, flat stones and sealed them with spray varnish. We left the stones at the grave site. It’s nice to visit the grave and see the stones are still there and shows the person isn’t forgotten.

  11. maria says:

    That is soooo awesome!! I would also like to do that!! Thanks for the comment!! Maria of Pa.

  12. Guy says:

    I did not know about this custom. I am a Catholic and today I went to the Cemetery in Laeken (Belgium) to the grave of my recently departed companion. To my surprise I found a pebble placed on top of the “cell” where the urn with the ashes were put. I also think this should become a more widespread custom. I think of it as a silent prayer, just like the flame of a candle is meant to be.

  13. Pat in Canada says:

    I just watched the Canadian Remmebrance Day ceremonies held in Ottawa. The tradition of leaving a stone seems to have now included poppies. At the end of the ceremonies, thousands of people filed past the memorial statue to the fallen Canadians and placed their poppies. It was a beautiful tribute and very moving….that we may never forget.

    • Cherie says:

      During the First World War, red poppies were among the first plants to spring up in the devastated battlefields of northern France and Belgium. In soldiers’ folklore, the vivid red of the poppy came from the blood of their comrades soaking the ground.
      The sight of poppies on the battlefield at Ypres in 1915 moved Lieutenant John McCrae to write the poem In Flanders fields, ColonelIn English literature of the nineteenth century, poppies had symbolised sleep or a state of oblivion; in the literature of the First World War a new, more powerful symbolism was attached to the poppy – the sacrifice of shed blood.
      There is also those who place white poppies to show rememberence but symbolising the hope of an end to all wars hope this helps

  14. Joan says:

    I leave a Remembrance Stones when visiting my parents’ graves. This way I can write a message and sign my name. It’s more meaningful to me than picking up a stone from the ground.

  15. David Dillman says:

    My wife was raised Episcopalian, though her maternal great grandparents were Jewish, and I was raised Methodist, … but when our 20 year old daughter died ten years ago, we came to naturally practice this ritual almost as instinct.

    We would take “special” stones, … shiny, smoothed or opalescent, … and “stones” such as special shells from our vacations without her at the beach. They are markers of our visits to her grave, together and apart, and “gifts” to her memory, reminders that we missed her at those special places and times that we had shared with her during our lives together.

    We will always leave her “stones” on her grave, for she needs nothing else, We do it to remind ourselves of her place in our lives, and the weight of her absence.

  16. Rachel Fallon says:

    Another reason that I believe is that the deceased revisit their surroundings and I leave a pebble or stone on my auntie’s grave everytime I visit as that is what I believe.

  17. Stephanie G. says:

    I leave a stone that I write a note on to my stepdad every time I visit him. It’s nice to see the other stones people leave as well because it makes me happy to know he is not forgotten.

  18. Peggy Cummins says:

    This is a true sentiment a beautiful thought to help ease the pain of a loss. Thank you for helping me understand what the pebbles mean. God bless you.

  19. Visitor to Belsen says:

    I rescently visited the Bergen-Belsen memorial, which has lots of stones on the gravestones now I know why

  20. Amanda Trill says:

    I think this is a wonderful idea…and I believe I will start doing it with some of my ancestors. We decorate all of the graves with flowers each year for Memorial Day, but that gets costly! I have not noticed this being done in the cemeteries that I go to…but then again, I wasn’t looking for it. I’ll have to keep an eye out now. 🙂

  21. bigmack13 says:

    Thanks for the info! I was at Arlington National for Memorial Day today and saw small stones on many of the headstones. All denominations seem to participate. it’s a tribute and also an acknowledgement to the living that your loved one is remembered.

  22. Joan K says:

    I visit the graves of my relatives before Rosh Hashahah every year. I leave an engraved remembrance stone at each grave. I like to date the stone and write a few words with my name on the reverse side. Although this is primarily a Jewish custom, I believe people practicing other religions and of European ancestory have followed it for a long time.

    • That is lovely information, Joan. Thank you. My wife’s family on her mother’s side were Jewish, and came to America from Hungary/Romania late in the 19th Century. I know she does not even know of this tradition, but she and I have laid pebbles and seashells on our daughter’s gravestone since she died ten years ago. We bring them from whatever travels we have had, to share with her, our daughter, that she was always there in our hearts.

  23. Melissa says:

    Thank you so much for this! My friends and I visited the Bonaventure Cemetery in Savannah today and this question came to mind when we passed through the Jewish section!

  24. Andrea says:

    Thank you to this site for all the explainations…My husband passed away 3 1/2 years ago and lately there have been stones placed onto of his headstone. Now I know why.

  25. Larry Meehan says:

    The visit to both relatives gravestones and those important in one’s spiritual and cultural life,with a small stone is a multicultural tradition in New England.
    Visitors to Boston and Cambridge will find small stones in cemeteries on every culture as well as on the gravestones of people like Paul Revere, Sam Adams, Emerson, Longfellow, as well as landmarks in Boston such as the Holocaust Memorial, the Hungarian Revolution Memorial, the Tianiman Square Memorial and others that are outdoors and feature an permanent stone memorial that stones can be placed.
    By the way I was told by a Jewish historically astute friend (confirmed by a Christian like-educated friend) that the idea is to bring a pebble/stone from your home, as this adds to the significance of the visit.

    An incredible and moving tradition.

    Larry in Boston
    July 2012

  26. Lisa says:

    I was curious of this tradition after recently visiting Arlington Cemetary. I also seen Lisa Kudrow doing it on the programme ‘who do you think you are’. This is most definitely a tradition that I would like to start and pass on to my family. I feel Its a lovely subtle sentiment that everyone can do no matter their religion, their up bringing or even how much money they have. Its beautiful!

  27. Mrs. M Sharp says:

    Thank you for all this information. I was in Israel last April & while standing on a hill overlooking the Temple Mount & the Jewish Cemetery, our guide explained to us the meaning of these pebbles. Am thinking of doing the same thing when I visit my husband’s grave again.

  28. Debi, Md says:

    I too was curious as to why stones were left on so many headstones and niche plates at Arlington National Cemetary where my father and father-in-law are laid to rest. This past weekend I placed two stones on my fathers niche plate in rememberance of my dad who served his country and loved his family unconditionally.

  29. Laura says:

    What custom is it to leave sea shells on a babies grave?

  30. Mourner says:

    My best friend died recently. He was Catholic. I am Catholic. We were as close as brothers for over 50 years. I leave a stone each time I visit his grave which is once a week. Someone keeps removing them. I am upset. I’m getting ready to back up my F450 and dump an entire load on the grave. Does anyone have any suggestions as to what I should do about this?

    • Joan says:

      Write your name on the back of the stone with a fine point permanent marker.

    • David says:

      I have had the same experience over the years at my daughter’s gravestone, and have finally come to terms with the stones disappearing on occasion. Whether it is a jealous friend or family member, a groundskeeper, or just a visitor in need of a remembrance, I’ve come to believe that the placing of the stone, in the moment I gave it, was the spirit of the gift I intended, and that the stone itself holds no significance. Grief for those we have loved evolves with time. The stones disappearing may remind you now of your “brother” disappearing all over, a loss that is still new to you. The stones you leave still exist, but not where you expect to find them, at the graveside. Their absence does not prove they do not exist. I’m certain you can see the meaning in my words, though the hurt of their being taken is still very real. He was very lucky to have such a devoted and loving friend as you, as were you. I wish you well, Mourner, David

  31. karen says:

    Thank you all for your thoughts about this. I have a question: is this tradition also part of the Japanese culture? I visited the Manzanar site years ago (former internment camp in N. Calif.) and noticed small smooth stones placed around, esp. on the main tall white maker. Some of the stones were stacked 2 and 3 high. I seem to remember that they represent prayers for the deceased. Does anyone know? Thanks.

  32. shlomo karni says:

    Flowers vis-a-vis pebbles:flowers, as pretty as they may be, wither; pebbles are permanent — hence the permanence of remembering the departed ones.

  33. Allana says:

    I visited Bonaventure Cemetery and seen the stones, I will make this a tradition. I love the gesture of it.

  34. Adam Levine says:

    Many reasons exists for why we place a stone on a grave, the one that stands out is as follows: in Hebrew a stone is אבנ , the first letter is an Aleph, which represents the Abba (the father), the second letter, a Bet (the Son) the third letter the Nun representing the nefesh (self). Judaism continues because of the hardness that generational strength provides; when generations continue to remember and place a eben (stone) on a grave we grow stronger into the future. Those that came before us have laid groundwork that make us who we are today, enabling us to pave the path for future generations.

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