What is the source and significance of erecting a tombstone and what purpose does it fulfill for the deceased?
One source in the Torah for erecting a tombstone over the grave is found regarding the death and burial of Rachel: “So Rachel died, and she was buried on the road to Efrat, which is Bethlehem. And Jacob erected a monument on her grave; that is the tombstone of Rachel until this day” (Gen. 35:19-20).
The most common term in Hebrew for the tombstone, and the one used in the above verse, is matzeiva. This word is derived from the various verbs for erecting, establishing or setting something in place. And as the verse itself implies, the term thus refers to the way that erecting a stone monument honors the departed and perpetuates the memory of the deceased for the living.
However, another term for the tombstone, which is a term often found in more mystical sources, is nefesh.
Insofar as this word is used in conjunction with the Sabbath, it connotes rest, or something coming to rest: “The children of Israel shall observe the Sabbath….[for in] six days the Lord created the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day He ceased and rested (nafash)” (Ex. 31:16-17). This suggests that the tombstone represents peaceful, Sabbath-like rest. For one, the erection of the monument brings to completion the departed person being laid to eternal rest. It also allows for complete closure of the mourners, and thereby sets to rest their bereavement.
In kabalistic teachings, the term nefesh refers to the lowest of five levels of soul that maintain the connection between a person and G‑d. In this way, G‑dliness is transmitted from on High and comes to rest in a person through the connection of the nefesh to the body, thereby imparting spiritual and physical life. After death, a residual aspect of nefesh continues to rest in the remains of the body. The matzeiva on which the person’s name, his essence, is engraved, becomes the connection through which the soul remains partially anchored to the body. In this way the matzeiva serves as a type of nefesh for the body after death.
It is this residual, dormant point of contact between the nefesh, the matzeiva and the bodily remains, and in particular the luz bone, which will spark renewed and regenerated life that will be ignited at Resurrection. At that time, the purified and perfected five levels of soul will restore and revive a purified and perfected physique, replacing the engraved stone matzeiva with a body of ethereal eternity.
The general practice is to inaugurate the tombstone upon the conclusion of either the first month or the first year after death. According to one custom, the tombstone is set as a standing headstone at the head of an earthen grave. Others have the custom of setting the tombstone by laying a large slab over the entire grave. In either case, the stone should be engraved in Hebrew characters with the deceased’s Hebrew name, Hebrew dates of birth and death, and an epitaph. Other languages and calendar dates may be added.