QUESTION: May a grave be marked by a stone placed at the foot rather than at the head of the grave? (Rabbi Selig Salkowitz, Brooklyn NY)
ANSWER: Only a few grave markers were mentioned in the Biblical period, such as the pillar which Jacob erected over the grave of his beloved Rachel (Gen 35.20), and the tombs of a number of kings (II Kings 23.17; I Mac 13.27). Numerous later Jewish tombstones and sarcophagi have recently been discovered by archaeologists both in Israel and throughout the Roman Empire (E. Goodenough Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman Period).
In the Mishnaic period ordinances dealt with the erection of tombstones as a form of warning priests away from a grave so that they would not become ritually impure (Tos Ohalot 17.14). It had become customary to erect tombstones for all those who had died (Shek 2; Er 5.1).
There is relatively little further discussion of tombstones until the Middle Ages (Sefer Hassidim #738; Or Zarua; Hagohot Asheri; Solomon ben Aderet Responsa; etc). Tombstones eventually became obligatory, and the heirs of the deceased could be forced to erect a stone (Tur Yoreh Deah 348; Shulhan Arukh Yoreh Deah 348.2; Even Haezer 89.1). The subsequent commentaries to this passage emphasized the need for simplicity in the stone.
Local minhag seems to have determined the position of the stone and so Greenwald simply stated that "in some communities the stone was placed at the foot of the grave and others at the head while it was the custom in Jerusalem to lay the stones horizontally over the grave rather than have upright stones" (Kol Bo al Avelut p 379 Hedrat Qodesh p 21). There is, in other words, no clear minhag on this matter, however, uniformity has been sought in each cemetery. This was done to avoid walking on the graves unnecessarily, and that is only possible if one knows whether the stone has been placed at the head or at the foot of the grave. The specific regulations of the cemetery should, of course, also be consulted especially as Jewish law and custom remain vague. The rules of the cemetery would prevail in this matter.