Are there Jewish sub-cultures (denominations, communities, burial societies, cemeteries) that permit the presence of photographs or etchings of the departed individual on the headstone. I was in a Jewish cemetery in Queens, NY, and I believe I saw some headstones with images. Is this halachically (by Jewish law) permissible? Preferred? Common? Is it determined by local custom?
Interestingly, much of Jewish burial rituals are custom and not halahah in the traditional sense. Although something might be uncommon in one Jewish community it is normative in another. For example, a receiving line is not a normative Jewish practice during a funeral. In Philadelphia, however, you will often see a receiving line after a Jewish funeral at the local Jewish funeral homes. Each community establishes its own norms for burial, taharah (the cleansing ritual), and monuments. Particularly in Jewish communities with smaller communities you will often see a wider net being cast in order to ensure that everyone’s practice will be included in some way. And fortunately, with few exceptions Judaism is flexible enough to allow for most needs to be met.
To answer your specific question, it is quite normative to have etchings on a headstone, but not of the person. The most common image is a star of david with the letters pey”nun written inside. These letters represent the phrase “po niftar – here lies buried.” However, images of the deceased are strictly forbidden in Jewish law.
The Hatam Sofer offered a famous ruling on this very issue. His concern was that engraving a picture of the deceased was close to idolatry and would be inappropriate. Particularly during his time, when it was normative to see someone praying beside the grave of an ancestor, this practice would have been as though the person was praying toward an idolatrous image. Additionally, the picture of the deceased would violate the biblical prohibition of graven images.
Although each community and each cemetery association forms their own regulations and normative practices, it is certainly uncommon to find images of the deceased on the monument. In my opinion, we should also take in to consideration the needs of the community and the needs of the individual family of mourners. Perhaps there is some compelling reason to include an image of the deceased. In that case, if it did not violate the practice of the burial society or cemetery association, I would certainly consider it.
Our job is to give Jewish tradition and practice a vote in our values-based decision-making process. I find the traditional monument to be a meaningful practice which connects each generation to our ancestors and treats all Jews, regardless of wealth or circumstance, equally. Because of that and its place in Jewish tradition, I would be hard pressed to allow the practice you describe.
Halachah (Jewish law) requires that a grave be marked by a monument. The monument serves three primary purposes: a) to mark the grave so that priests avoid coming into contact with the dead thereby rendering them impure; b) to designate the burial spot so family and friends may visit c) show honor to the deceased. There are no binding rules about the size, shape or content of such a marker, however there is agreement among halachic authorities that the marker should not be ostentatious and serve as a dignified memorial. There is also widespread agreement that minimally the marker should include the full name of the deceased (Hebrew and vernacular), the date of birth and the date of death (Hebrew and vernacular). It is also common to include the familial relationships of the deceased (i.e., wife, mother, daughter, etc.). It is also appropriate and very much within the norms of tradition to include an epitaph – which may be a citation from the Bible or other Jewish sources or may be in the vernacular. The epitaph should encapsulate the values and personality of the deceased.
There are many images that are included on traditional Jewish gravestones including the star of David, the priestly hands (indicating that the deceased was a Kohen) candlesticks for a woman, etc. However, traditionally Jewish gravestones do not include etchings or depictions of the deceased. The reason for this is twofold: There is a general concern against physical depictions, especially in places where people come to pray, because of the Bible’s stricture against idolatry and the forming of graven images. Secondly, we strive to remember the spiritual qualities and values of the deceased – for these are what truly endure forever. Though there is no absolute prohibition against such etchings and depictions, they are not normative in Jewish tradition. It is very possible that there are subcultures that do allow and even encourage these depictions but they are almost surely not religious groups or burial societies.
Are there Jewish sub-cultures (denominations, communities, burial societies, cemeteries) that permit the presence of photographs or etchings of the departed individual on the headstone. I was in a Jewish cemetery in Queens, NY, and I believe I saw some headstones with images. Is this Halachically (by Jewish Law) permissible? preferred? common? Is it determined by local custom?
To answer your question it is important that we distinguish between etchings and photographs. One of the original reasons that many Jewish legal authorities gave for forbidding “images” of the desceased on the matzevah (tombstone) was that it was akin to an idol. And since prayers are often said in a cemetery, such prayers in front of these images would constitute idol worship. While a strict view of this legal concern might apply to carved etchings, it would not apply to a photograph, which being two dimensional is by all opinions, by definition, not an idol.
So, while it seems that in the “traditional” community of today the prevailing custom is clearly not to place photographs on the matzevah, this does not constitute an absolute prohibition. There have definitely been rabbis in the past that have permitted this practice and even amongst many of the rabbis today who would discourage it, few (outside of the ultra-Orthodox community,perhaps) would say that it is halakhicly asur (legally forbidden). In fact, recognized expert and rabbi, Maurice Lamm writes, “If [a monument with a photograph is] already erected, however, these tombstones should cause no disputes and are better left to stand as they are” (The Jewish Ways in Death and Mourning, 191). In conclusion, while the prevailing custom is clearly not to have photographs on the matzevah, if there is a family custom of doing so, (especially if it can be traced to a rabbinic decision to permit), it can be allowed.
There is no halachah on headstones. I, too, have seen some with pictures of the deceased. All of them were in small orthodox sponsored cemeteries. I have not seen any in “mainstream” Jewish cemeteries. I guess that the answer is that it is determined by local custom. Sorry I cannot be more definitive.
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