Stones can be a grave matter

By Patricia Kasten | The Compass | October 27, 2016

“Good friend, for Jesus’ sake forbear / To dig the dust enclosèd here./ Blest be the man that spares these stones / And cursed be he that moves my bones.”

This self-written epitaph is from the grave of William Shakespeare (d. 1616), who lies buried in the Church of the Holy Trinity, Stratford-upon-Avon.

On Halloween thoughts turn to gravestones. This might be because of holiday spookiness, but perhaps it’s because November brings the feasts of All Saints and All Souls. It is also the month of All Souls, when it is considered an act of mercy to visit cemeteries to pray for the dead.

Headstones are not mentioned in the Old Testament, but graves are. Abraham purchased a burial cave when Sarah died (Gen 23) and Isaac later buried Abraham there. Isaac’s son, Jacob, built a monument over his wife’s grave (Gen. 35:20). The Tomb of the Patriarchs (Hebron) and Rachel’s Tomb (Bethlehem) can still be visited today.

According to rabbinic tradition, Jewish burials date back to Adam and Eve, when a raven taught the couple how to bury their murdered son, Abel.

In Jesus’ time, Jews buried their dead in caves. Bodies were laid on shelves. After a year, the bones were placed in an ossuary (bone box) bearing the person’s name. The boxes were reburied in the cave. Even today, traditional Jews gather at a grave no more than one year after a death, for a ceremony to place the gravestone.

Archaeological excavations at Zoar, along the Dead Sea, show that first-century Jews and early Christians — who lived there together — also used burial stones. Often adorned with red ochre, these bore the names of the deceased, the year they died, and — for Christians — the name of their church and bishop.

By the third century, some Christians (and Jews) were buried in catacombs. While catacombs are found in Italy, North Africa and Asia Minor, the most famous are Rome’s where the porous, volcanic rock (tufa) can be easily excavated.

Contrary to legend, Christians did not bury their dead in secret. The catacombs, like all Roman burial sites, were known to authorities and protected by law.

In these catacombs, we see examples of epitaphs, such as one: “Sweet Simplicius, live in eternity.” Some catacombs were built near the graves of martyrs. Most of these relics had been moved to churches by the 10th century and the catacombs were all but forgotten.

Burial mounds predate Christianity, going back to Neolithic times. In the United States, “Mound Burial” cultures existed until the 16th century. High Cliff State Park in Calumet County contains mounds attributed to these early Mound Builders.

Burial mounds also give us some of the oldest grave markers, known as “dolmens” and dating back 7,000 years. Some were arranged into megalithic monuments to mark the boundaries of chamber tombs. (Think huge stones like Stonehenge.)

Over the ages, grave markers honored kings — from the pyramids and temples of ancient Egypt and China to cathedrals housing tombs of European rulers. Germany’s Aachen Cathedral was built by the first Holy Roman Emperor, Charlemagne. He was buried there in 814.

Christian cemeteries, because of a fear of contamination, were located outside city walls. This is why medieval churches were built along or even into city walls — so burials could be in the churchyard, but not in the city.

Markers varied throughout Christian times, some consisting of a stone slab over the grave or both a headstone and footstone to delineate the dimensions of a grave.

In what later became the United States, early graves were often simple and many had wooden markers (as they did again in the “Wild West”). Reflecting Puritan customs, headstones that did exist contained no religious images — since that was considered something reflecting Roman Catholicism. If they had any adornment, it was secular, perhaps a skull. A good example is the Revolutionary War Cemetery (Old Salem Burial Ground) founded in Salem, N.Y., in the middle 1700s. Local masons carved the tall, slab headstones and the decorations reflected each stonecutter’s tastes.

By the Victorian era, variety and decoration flourished. Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, died in 1861 and she mourned him until her own death in 1901. Various customs, such as park-like cemeteries and mourning jewelry (some included hair from the dead) developed at this time. From this period, we also see elaborate decorations on headstones, including doves, weeping angels, laurel wreathes or broken columns. Family mausoleums, for those who could afford it, date to this period.

No one knows exactly where the tradition of gravestones started — whether with the monoliths of the Stone Age Europe, the obelisks of pharaonic Egypt or the ossuaries of the ancient Middle East. They may even have started because graves were piled with stones to prevent scavengers from digging up bodies. For ancient Jews, stones marked some graves — when a cave wasn’t available — so that people could avoid contamination from accidentally touching a grave.

However, leaving stones on graves is not always a matter of placing a heavy, granite monument.

In Jewish cemeteries worldwide, you can find small stones or pebbles on graves. (This is something made familiar by “Schindler’s List,” when mourners placed stones on Schindler’s grave.) You can even order small stones shipped from Jerusalem to place on graves. For Jews, they are a way to leave a memento of a visit. In some ways, these pebbles are similar to leaving flowers on a grave, but with a slightly different meaning.

Rabbi Aron Moss, of the Nefesh Jewish community in Sydney, Australia, explains that, for Jews, the stone honors the permanence of the soul. “The body, like a flower,” wrote Rabbi Moss, “blossoms and then fades away, but the soul, like a solid stone, lives on forever.”

In November, we honor all the souls whom we believe live on forever in Christ and in the Communion of Saints that includes each one of us.


Sources: International Southern Cemetery Gravestones Association at;;;;;;; “The Catholic Encyclopedia”; “Our Sunday Visitor’s Encyclopedia of Catholic History”;” The Modern Catholic Encyclopedia”; Rome’s catacombs at;; and

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