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Piles of Memories, Piles of Stones

My Yizkor memorial service meditation about the meaning of bringing stones when visiting graves and the new ritual we created from an ancient custom.

When visiting the graves of loved ones, we leave a stone. This tradition dates back to biblical times when grave markers were piles of stones. Most Jews do not observe the custom of bringing flowers. These wither and can rarely withstand nature’s surprising, and oftentimes unpredictable, temperament. Stones offer permanence. Although they are smoothed by the weather’s steady drumbeat, they remain unmoved. In addition, rocks remind us of one of the tradition’s many names for God: Tzur Yisrael—Rock of Israel. God stands against life’s precariousness. God stands above life’s vicissitudes.

Leaving a stone is a beautiful custom. It can be as small as a pebble or as large as the palm of a hand. We walk to the footstone and bend over, placing the stone on its corner, or we approach the headstone, often reaching over the bushes and then find a comfortable resting place for the pebble or rock. And there they sit for months and perhaps even years, unmoved by wind and rains, unmoved by how often we visit or if we only choose to light a candle in the quiet of our homes. There they sit reminding others who might visit of our remembrances. Over the years, the piles accumulate into memories.

I have often encouraged families to invite young children to write thoughts or wishes on these stones with permanent markers. And then, even after many months one can still decipher the scrawl of “I love you grandpa. Or I miss your matzah balls, grandma.” I also urge people to collect stones on their travels. And while our biblical ancestors never piled seashells atop a grave marker, we can. When you pick up a perfectly smoothed stone at the beach and bring it to the cemetery you connect your loved one to your travels. Often when returning from a trip you want to call and share your adventures with the mother or father, sister or brother with whom you talked about everything. Or when enjoying a peaceful stroll on the beach you find yourself dreaming about the time you walked there with your spouse.

In that moment, reach down and find a stone. Save it. Hold on to it. Add it to the piles of stones accumulating on the grave. Add it to the memories piling up within your soul.

The strange thing about mourning is that years later you can be in the most mundane of places like walking along any beach, shopping in the supermarket or even driving in the car, thinking that you have no more tears left, but then you hear the music of the Beatles or see a box of kasha or are awed by the sight of the waves lapping on the shore, and you find yourself overwhelmed by a flood of tears. This was her most cherished song! This was his favorite dish! This was their beloved place! The memories accumulate like an endless stream of pebbles churning at the edge of the seashore.

Find a stone. Let memories accumulate into piles.

This year, we are adding a new ritual to our Yizkor service. In a moment, I will invite you to form a line in the sanctuary’s center aisle and place a stone or stones, if you prefer, on the table in front of the bima. Take a quiet moment when placing this stone. Listen to the music and be alone with your thoughts and memories.

Let our memories then accumulate into piles. And let this be our Yom Kippur prayer. May our shared remembrances give us strength and comfort.