Placing pebbles on a tombstone is a Jewish tradition: 1) to leave a memento after visiting a loved one’s grave; 2) in ancient times when bodies were placed directly in a simple grave, mourners covered the body with stones so that animals might not unearth the body. Later visitors to the grave would bring new stones to rebuild the monument and protect the physical remains.
Nowadays, the second reason no longer applies, but the first has become a commonplace tradition in Jewish cemeteries.
As many of you have read before, I had planned an October visit to Los Angeles, but medical problems prevented that trip. Nonetheless, my family made a visit to my husband’s grave to bring him pebbles from New Mexico.
If you take another look at Harold’s memorial stone, you will note that the bottom half of his marker is empty. According to Jewish custom, that part will be filled in one year after I am entombed with my beloved husband. When we purchased out plot decades ago, we economized by buying a double-decker grave rather than two graves side by side. We turned this into a running joke: “Who gets to be on top?” Guess I won.
Cemetery visits can be instructive. In Los Angeles, Hollywood Forever is where the movie moguls of the past are buried. Huge tombs have been erected to Douglas Fairbanks Senior and Junior, Tyrone Power and Marion Davies. They also have Rudolph Valentino’s crypt that annually lures a Lady in Black bearing flowers on the anniversary of his death.
In 1952, when Hattie McDaniels died, she desired to be buried there with other Hollywood celebrities because she was the first African American to win an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress portraying Mammy in “Gone With the Wind.” However, in those days, cemeteries were restricted by race. The original owners of Hollywood Cemetery denied McDaniels’ request to be interred there. Instead she was buried outside the city limits at Rose Hills.
When the new owners of the renamed Hollywood Forever discovered this affront, they offered to have McDaniels exhumed and reburied on their property. The McDaniels family refused. Instead, on October 26, 1999, a four-foot granite monument was dedicated to McDaniels. A public celebration ensued that included a Clark Gable look-alike who wowed the crowd as he strode among them.
Norine Dresser is a folklorist who likes to visit cemeteries.