The following column appeared in print on February 27, 2016.
The Connection of Stone and Graves
Diane Lynn Tibert
I can’t recall the first time I visited a grave. It was long before I became interested in genealogy. But even then, I knew—from movies, books and photographs—most graves were marked with headstones. Many resting places had wooden crosses, but they didn’t last generations. Stone—whether marble, granite or limestone—could withstand centuries of abuse from environmental conditions.
A large cemetery might have hundreds of graves that were once marked with pretty, white crosses, but after a decade or two, the wood decomposed, leaving the graves unmarked. The graves marked with stones remained and dominated the landscape.
I learned the life span of wood compared to stone when I was a youth. By the time I was twelve, I had a pet cemetery beneath a broad-top birch in my backyard. Every animal we owned or tried to save (robins, blue jays, mice) found a home there when it expired. I even buried my friend’s gerbil when it died.
I outlined the small graves with stones the size of tennis balls and placed a cross with the name of the pet painted on the wood. A good, healthy winter could destroy a cross or two, but the stones remained to mark the spot, and I’d make up another cross. I was so dedicated to the cemetery, I had a plot plan, so I wouldn’t forget who was buried where if a cross was destroyed.
From this experience, I believed stones marked human graves because they were stronger and endured much longer than wood. While this is true, it may not be the only reason stones became a mainstay in cemeteries.
On the Grave Interest website, Joy Neighbors talks about pebbles left on headstones and graves. I’ve seen them and assumed they were left by loved ones as a gift to the deceased, a reminder they had visited. I’m a stone gather; I pick up stones wherever I go and sometimes, I leave them on headstones.
Neighbors wrote she first believed the stones on graves was a Jewish tradition, but I am not Jewish. She went on to say there are several explanations to explain the stones left behind. For thousands of years, the dead have been entombed in stone or buried in shallow graves beneath piles of rock called cairns. The stone was used to deter scavengers—both human and animal—and to keep evil spirits from escaping into the world. Cairns are found all over the world.
In Eastern European folklore, it is said that souls lived for a short time after death. They would either haunt their burial place or return home and cause trouble. Rocks were used to prevent the dead from rising and escaping the corpse. Visitors added their own stones to help keep the soul in place.
Stones were also placed as a gesture of respect and love. The more stones left at a grave, the more loved and respected the deceased was in the community. Respect, love and remembrance are the reasons stones are left today.
So the next time you visit a cemetery and see these stones, know the grave has been visited by someone who cared. Perhaps you’ll be inspired to leave your own stone on the grave you visit. Unlike flowers, plastic ornaments and solar lights, stones last forever, don’t produce litter and are free.♦