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    Tombstones – Ask the Rabbi

    Q. Does Jewish law require graves to have tombstones?

    A. There is a passage in the Talmud that says it is not necessary to erect a tombstone for the righteous because their words are their memorial (J. Shek. 2:5), but this is not taken literally.

    It is true that the best memorial is a living memory in the minds and hearts of those who survive, and no-one is completely dead if their words and deeds have an influence on earth, but at the same time the erection of a tombstone has been the norm in Judaism from ancient days, derived from Jacob’s action in placing a stone over the grave of his wife Rachel near Bethlehem: “And Jacob set up a monument by her grave; this is the monument of Rachel’s grave to this day” (Gen. 35:20).

    Rachel’s tomb is one of the Jewish holy places; indeed every cemetery is a hallowed place and it is a tragedy for both the living and the dead if a cemetery is desecrated.

    Every community has rules and conventions that govern the type and size of tombstones; ideally, every tombstone would be neat and modest without over-ostentation.

    Who should pay for the tombstone is sometimes a matter of dispute. Naturally it helps if the deceased left money for this purpose, but if not it is the solemn duty of the family to make and pay for the arrangements. There are times when, if there are no relatives, the erection of the tombstone is undertaken by the community, but if a person has no family they should ensure that they leave instructions (and the necessary funds) during their lifetime.

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