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My office is situated right next to a Jewish cemetery. A coworker, noticing the yarmulke on my head, asked me why he sometimes sees stones placed on some of the gravestones. I told him that as far as I know the reason is to show respect for the deceased by showing that someone was there visiting the grave, but I'm wondering if there's a better or deeper reason. I've asked a few locals including the rabbi of my shul, but I have yet to find a good answer.

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    In Depth Answer HERE. – SimchasTorah Nov 21 '10 at 4:12
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    Michael Kopinsky, Welcome to mi.yodeya, and thanks very much for the FAQ-worthy question! I look forward to seeing you around. – Isaac Moses Nov 21 '10 at 4:34
  • Apocryphal stories about stoning don't really do it for me, and I don't think they would for my atheist coworker either. The textual sources he cites might be useful - I haven't had a chance to look them up yet. – Michael Kopinsky Nov 21 '10 at 14:09
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    isn't it like participating in the mizvah of burying the dead? – jutky Nov 21 '10 at 18:18
  • That story has so many holes in it and to accept the idea that one Hevrah Kadisha could institute a custom that spread all around the world speaks for itself. It reminds me of the story a Yerushalmi Jew told my parents when trying to explain the "impossibility" of engineering a tunnel dig from two ends that meet in the center: "Dere is ah bridge in Amelica called de Delavare Memorial Bridge. It is made of two independent bridges, vun mit traffic in vun direction and de oter mit traffic in de oter direction. You vant to know vy? Because dey tried to meet up in de mittle, but dey missed!" – Yahu Nov 22 '10 at 2:20
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A less poetic but more probable explanation than the one SimchasTorah linked to...

Dates back to when grave markers were cairns, which is the biblical meaning of the word "matzeivah" (before we shifted it to mean tombstone). A cairn is a pile of stone. With rain and wind, the pile would shrink. So, out of respect for the deceased, so they not be forgotten, visitors would enlarge the pile of stones by adding to it.

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    I agree, this seems much more probable. Do we have any actual historical evidence to this effect? – Michael Kopinsky Nov 21 '10 at 14:11
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    micha, Welcome to mi.yodeya, and thanks very much for your interesting answer! (FTR, the other one was not written by me, just edited for format.) We'd love to have you as a fully registered member, which you can accomplish by clicking "register," above. – Isaac Moses Nov 21 '10 at 15:20
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    My always father told me that is adding to the Matzeivah and I always understood it to mean exactly as Micha described. – Yahu Nov 22 '10 at 2:09
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    Concur, my Rosh Yeshiva told me this reason too. – Shalom Nov 23 '10 at 1:55
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    @Shalom, can you name your R"Y? – Seth J Aug 21 '12 at 2:23
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From the Be'er Heiteiv, Orach Chaim 224:8:

מה שתולשין עשב או צרור ומשימין על מצבה אינו אלא משום כבוד המת להראות שהוא היה על קברו

Translated,

That people pick grass or a stone and place it on the grave marker is simply [to accord] honor to the deceased; to show that one has been present at the grave.

Quoted in the "laws" section of the OU/Artscroll Siddur for the House of Mourning.

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I heard this morning from Rabbi Shmuel Tendler Shlita - Rabbi of Sons of Israel in Lakewood, that the word Even is an acronym for Av, Ben, Neked or alternatively Eim, Bas, Nekda. That is why we place a stone as we are saying we are a continuation of you. (This only explains why one would place on the grave of a parent or grandparent)

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While not written from a Halachic perspective, the website of a Jewish cemetery organization in Woburn, Ma, USA, includes a story of a personal visit to family graves which includes the explanation of the old custom of building cairns as the roots of the modern tradition of leaving a stone; the cemetery even provides a basket of stones for those who have not brought their own.

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