Q. What does Jewish law say about headstones on graves?
A. A grave needs a headstone. This derives from Genesis 35:19-20. The headstone has several purposes:
1. It marks the grave as the “address” of the earthly remains of the deceased.
2. It indicates where others can/should come for reflection and prayer.
3. It prevents others (especially kohanim) from walking on or too close to the grave.
The headstone should clearly denote who is buried there. It should be erected as soon as possible (customs differ – e.g. after the shivah is usual in some places; in other places it is closer to the first anniversary of death). No statuettes, etc., should be placed on the headstone, nor should pictures of the deceased (although some communities allow pictures).
The inscription should contain the Hebrew name of the deceased and their Hebrew date of death; before the name come the letters peh nun, the initials of the Hebrew for “here lies buried”; at the end of the inscription come the letters tav nun tzaddeh bet heh, the initials of the Hebrew for “May his/her soul be bound up in the bond of life”.
A brief description of the deceased may also be included, but it should contain nothing derogatory about either the deceased or anyone else. A Jewish symbol, e.g. a Magen David or a menorah, may be added if desired. The information about the deceased may also be given in English and/or another vernacular (though some cemeteries in Israel do not encourage this).