Location of Tombstone
On a family plot, should the main tombstone, with the family name, be at the foot, at the head, or at the cen ter of the lot? Also, should the individual, smaller stones on the lot be at the head or at the foot of the individual graves? (From Rabbi Nathan Kaber, Altoona, Pennsylvania)
There is no clear statement in the Law on the question of the location of a tombstone on the grave, as to whether it should be at the head or at the foot of the grave. There could not have been any such statement in the earlier Palestinian sources, for in Palestine they generally buried in niches within a cave. It is not certain whether the opening of the individual niches was sealed with a stone, but it is known that the opening to the main cave itself did have a stone which could be rolled away for subsequent burials. If there were any inscriptions, we must assume that there was a general inscription on the outer stone, perhaps a family name. In Rome, if the Jewish catacombs can serve as an analogy, the individual niches within the large catacomb were, of course, sealed by separate stones, and inscriptions were placed upon the stones which sealed the niches.
Graves in the earth became the customary form of burial in Babylon, where the soil was not rocky but soft. But we have no statements as to which part of each grave was marked with the tombstone. Evidently the question did not arise. The Oriental Jews and many of the Sephardim of the west covered the entire grave with a flat stone. This may have been the custom in Babylon and perhaps the Talmudic phrase, “when the sealing stone was placed” (Nistam ha-golel, b. Sanhedrin 47b), meant the stone which covered the entire grave. This is the interpretation of the Talmudic phrase given by Rabbenu Tam (Tosfos, ad loc).
The Ashkenazim did not follow this custom of using a horizontal slab which covered the entire grave. Therefore the question, at what part of the grave the stone should be set, could well have arisen among them. But apparently such a question did not find a place in the legal literature. Evidently it did not matter, for we see that with some of the famous rabbis a sort of a tent (ohel) of stones was built all the way around the grave. Thus there were really four tombstones, one on each side and one at the head and one at the foot, and of course there were four inscriptions. If there had been any objection to putting an inscribed stone either at the head or at the foot or at the sides of the grave, they certainly would not have put all four stones (three of which would have been wrongly placed) around the graves of great rabbis.
The late Jekuthiel Greenwald, of Columbus, Ohio, was very meticulous in all matters dealing with this subject; yet in his “Kolbo Al Avelus,” p. 379 top, he says that the custom varies from community to community as to whether to put the tombstone in the middle of the grave, or at the head, or at the foot.
We must add, however, that there have been responsa discussing the question of a nonconforming placement of the tombstone—i.e., if, for example, in the entire cemetery tombstones are at the head of the graves, and at one particular grave it was placed at the foot, there is discussion as to whether this one stone should not be changed to conform. Hence, the answer to the question is that in general there is no law or fixed custom as to the location of the stone with regard to the position of the body, but that it is better to conform with the other tombstones in the cemetery.