I like cemeteries. There’s a mystical hush that hovers in this silent city of the deceased. There on the Mount of Olives (so named for the olive trees that once graced this hillside), away from the teeming streets of Old Jerusalem, the past quietly resonated with the dignity deserving of mankind’s departed souls.
As I looked out across the hills and valleys of the Mount of Olives, I saw time spanning three millennia in the 150,000 tombs that bore witness to the evolution of mankind in this cradle of civilization. The earliest tombs were located at the foot of the mountain in the Kirdron Valley.
It was there Absalom, the rebellious son of King David (the second king of the United Kingdom of Israel from 1010-970 BC), built a tomb so he would be remembered; Zechariah, father of John the Baptist and priest to Israel’s First Temple is also buried in the Kirdron Valley between the Temple Mount and the foot of the Mount of Olives. Holy homestretch!
In the words of Jean Valjean in Victor Hugo’s, Les Miserables, “It is nothing to die. It is frightful not to live.”
Undoubtedly those stats explained the close proximity of each tomb/ossuary, although it did not account for the small size of each, about four feet by two feet by two feet. Either early Jews were extremely short, or internment years ago involved traditions I do not have the stomach to explore.
I did find the Jewish tradition of leaving stones on the tombs of loved ones a very earthy and lasting testament to the bond between the living and the dead.
The superstitious rationale for placing stones on Jewish tombs has its roots in the Talmud. There is a belief that souls continue to dwell for a while in the graves in which the deceased are placed. The grave, called a beit olam (a permanent home), was thought to retain some aspect of the departed soul. The stones (the Hebrew word for pebble is tz’ror, which means bond) helped the soul stay put, remain in this world, where it belonged. Leaving a stone following a visit provided the bond of life – tz’ror haHayyim – so that the memory of that loved one lived on and through us with each stone left.