|Saint Francis Xavier Cemetery; Centerville, Mass.|
When Sargent Shriver died this week I, having an idle moment and an idle mind, searched the Internet for a picture of his wife's gravesite. The pebbles atop her stone reminded me of how much I like the Jewish tradition of leaving a marker of your visit. The custom has been adopted by many gentiles, including me.* I wondered: what is the meaning of the gesture? ... when did it begin?
No one knows, there's only speculation:
1. Burying someone is an act of kindness and respect. Erecting a tombstone is mitzvah, a commandment or charitable act. By adding to the marker we participate in mitzvah.
2. The earliest reference to the practice is in an ancient Jewish midrash (an explanation of, generally, Biblical passages)which tells of each of Jacob's sons carrying a stone to put on Rachel's grave.
3. In a book titled The Reasons for the Customs Ithak Sperling says simply, "We put grass and pebbles on the grave to show that the visitor was at the grave. It is sort of a calling card ...."
4. Before the onset of the manufacture of gravestones, each mourner brought a small stone; the many were formed into a heap, a cairn, to mark the spot.
*I practice the custom, that is, when I remember -- on my last visit to France I packed a handful of pebbles I had gathered on the beaches here. Back home, having totally forgotten them, I came across them when I unpacked.