Question: Recently it came to light that there is no memorial stone over the grave of a family member who passed away some time ago. He has children, but, unfortunately, they refuse to do anything to rectify this matter. Worse, they say that erecting a monument is not a requirement. I don’t agree with them. Please quote sources so that I can prove to them that they must erect a memorial stone.
Name withheld by request
Answer: Your question is, unfortunately, a matter that we have dealt with in the past, but not in depth. Because of your question, we will republish and expand upon our original answer in the hope that doing so will resolve this matter in a way that results in your dearly departed relative receiving the honor he is due.
First of all, as we will set forth, not placing a memorial stone over the grave of a departed relative is not optional. It is an absolute requirement. A child or husband/wife is required to place a tombstone over the grave of his/her parent or wife/husband. The Torah states that Jacob placed a stone over Rachel’s grave (Genesis 35:20) “Vayatzev Yaakov matzeivah al kvurasa hi matzevet kvurat Rachel ad hayom – Jacob set up a monument over her grave; it is the monument of Rachel’s grave until today.” The custom to do so is mentioned throughout Tanach (II Kings 23:17; Jeremiah 31:21, etc.).
We find numerous references throughout the Talmud indicating the need to place a stone over a grave. In the Gemara (Baba Bathra 58a) Rabbi Bana’ah is especially praised for marking caves (tombs) with dead bodies, including the Ma’arat Hamachpelah. The Gemara (Baba Metzia 85b) also states that R. Shimon ben Lakish is said to have marked the burial place of rabbis and to have cast himself in prayer on the graves of the pious for the propitiation of the great sages of Beit Shammai and of the just and the wronged.
Rabbi Yechiel Michel Tukacinzky (Gesher Hachayyim ch. 28) offers three reasons for placing a stone over a grave: 1) to mark off the place of the grave – so that a priest not tread there; 2) to establish the location of the grave so that relatives and offspring can visit and pray in the merit of the deceased; 3) to honor the spirit of the departed soul.
The Gemara (Mo’ed Katan 5a) relates that Rabbi Simeon ben Pazzi said, “Where is there an indication in Scripture that gravesites be marked? From the following verse (Ezekiel 39:15) ‘v’ro’oh etzem adam u’vonoh etzlo tziyyon – and when [passersby] see a human bone, they will set up a marker near it.’” We find this ruling in the Rambam (Hilchot Tum’at Met 8:9), who states that it is an absolute requirement to place a stone on a grave in order not to create a stumbling block for passersby.
We find as well in the Mishnah (Shekalim 2:5) that Rabbi Nathan said, “From the surplus of funds collected for the burial of a person, a tombstone should be erected over his grave.” The Gemara elaborates that not only did Rabbi Nathan order the surplus be allocated for a tombstone, he also ordered that some of that surplus be used to satisfy the requirement of sprinkling aromatic wine over the deceased’s bier as he/she lies in state prior to his/her burial.
The commentary Taklin Chad’tin (sv “yibaneh lo Nefesh al kivro”) explains that we should set in place above the grave a structure – a mausoleum or a monument – which serve as a remembrance for the soul and enables survivors to come and remember him or her. It is a matter of kavod ha’met – honor due to the dead. Thus, we see that there might be a requirement to set upon the grave an elaborate structure; surely, minimally, one is required to place a memorial stone.
The Mishnah states that the funds for the stone should come from the surplus of funds collected for the burial. If there are no surplus funds, it seems that one cannot force the deceased’s child, spouse, or other close relative to erect a stone. According to Tractate Moed Katan, though, it seems that the requirement is absolute, since it states that the tombstone’s purpose is to prevent passersby from stepping unlawfully on the grave.
A son should certainly be persuaded to attend to this mitzvah as soon as possible for yet another reason: kibbud av v’em. The duty to honor one’s parents continues even after their deaths (Kiddushin 31b).
Furthermore, if a person has children and wishes to earn their respect, he must remember that children often learn by example. As the years pass, he may one day come to regret being nonchalant in this matter and not erecting a gravestone.Rabbi Yaakov Klass