As I was researching an oft asked question about placing stones on Jewish graves, I stumbled on a connection to one of my favorite sites, Qumran. Qumran, near the Dead Sea, attracts many visitors. Discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the life of the Essenes, and a nice pit stop-on the way to floating in the Dead Sea all combine to make it worthwhile. During their visit to Qumran, most pass by the cemetery without stopping, but it gives us clues to one explanation of the contemporary custom.
If you follow my blog, you already know that I like cemeteries. In Qumran, we find an unusual Second Temple era cemetery, unusual because it is the cemetery of simple, regular folk. The dearly departed of Qumran were not buried in lavish caves, and no elaborate monuments were erected. The cemetery here consists of ditches dug in the ground and filled in with stones. These are not the tombs of the rich and famous that we are used to seeing in Jerusalem. In other places, nature and neglect erased tombs of simple folk but in remote, dry Qumran, these tombs remained preserved.
The casual observer will be hard-pressed to see any sign of Qumran’s cemetery – at least at first. As we turn off the paved path, I ask people to please try to refrain from stepping on any stones. We walk east through what could be any Judean desert landscape – that is to say, rocks EVERYWHERE. And then we stop, and look hard.
“See that group of stones? That’s a Jewish grave. And here’s another parallel to the first. And another. And another.”
Within a minute, one realizes that he is in a cemetery with hundreds of graves. One-thousand one-hundred graves have been identified, each marked by a mound of stones. These are 2000 year old grave-stones, literally. Before there were headstones, these piles of stones marked the location of the grave and kept wild animals out. Through the normal course of time and nature, some stones would disperse.
A 15th century Jewish almanac of traditions quotes a 11th century source which states that Jewish tradition includes placing stones on Jewish graves. The tradition goes back even earlier when a visitor to a grave had a responsibility to maintain it. That included replacing the piles of grave-stones marking the final resting place of their dearly departed.
The next time you are in Qumran visit the cemetery, and maybe even participate in maintaining an ancient Jewish tomb by (re)placing a stone or two.
Related sites (Second Temple Burial):
- Dominus Flevit Church
- Absalom’s Pillar
- Sidonian Caves in Beit Guvrin National Park