It is a hallowed, age-old custom to visit the graves of our loved ones, as it benefits both the deceased and the living. Occasions for visitation, even before a monument is in place, are listed below:
Since a Kohayn is a descendant of the Priestly Class among the Jewish people, the Torah prescribes certain rules for the Kohayn to observe. Traditionally, a Kohayn does not enter a funeral home, a cemetery, or any place where proximity to a deceased person causes ritual defilement. An exception to this observance may occur in a case where a Kohayn must tend to the burial needs of certain close blood relatives. Frequently, families of Kohaynim would be buried at the fence or wall of the cemetery, so the Kohaynim could stay outside the cemetery and still visit the graves of their loved ones. Depending upon the layout of the cemetery, it might be possible under certain circumstances for a Kohayn to enter. In cases of uncertainty, always consult with your Rabbi for guidance.
Historically, the first grave markers were merely mounds of stones or found inside natural rock caves, such as the graves of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The early Hebrews were nomadic tribes and shepherds who were not skilled in the art of stone carving or quarrying until their contact with Babylon and Egypt. It was the custom when passing by a mound of stones marking a grave to replace those in the vicinity that may have fallen off. This became interpreted as a mark of thoughtfulness and regard for the memory of the departed one. These mounds of heavy rocks served to guard the graves from predatory beasts and grave robbers, as well as to warn of the presence of graves to those forbidden to come near. In modern times, the act of putting a small stone on the monument when visiting a grave has become a symbol of respect and honor to the deceased, and a visible sign that our loved ones have not abandoned in death.