Commemorative inscriptions marking the place of burial were known at the time of the First Temple following the custom of the other Oriental nations, in particular the Phoenicians. The most elaborate as yet discovered is a rock-carved inscription over a burial cave in the Kidron Valley outside Jerusalem apparently referred to explicitly in Isaiah 22:15–16, indicating the grave of the royal steward Shebna: "This is (the sepulcher of) … yahu who is over the House. There is no silver and no gold here but (his bones) and the bones of his slave-wife with him. Cursed be the man who will open this." In the Second Temple period, there grew up the practice of burial in sarcophagi or secondary burial in *ossuaries: these generally bore at the most the names of the persons whose bones had been brought together in them. On the other hand, more elaborate inscriptions were placed over some burial places, such as the tomb of the priestly family of Benei *Hezir in the Kidron Valley. From the period of Roman-Byzantine domination, after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 C.E., many epitaphs are preserved, brought together by J.B. Frey in the second volume of his Corpus Inscriptionum Judaicarum, the largest number being from the *catacombs of *Bet She'arim in Galilee. Normally these bear only the name of the deceased, whether in Hebrew or in Greek: in two cases the epitaph is a lengthy poem in Greek verses.
To the same period belong the very large number of epitaphs found in the Roman catacombs, collected with others from Europe in Frey's first volume. Of these, the great majority (approximately 75 percent) are in Greek: most of the remaining 25 percent are in Latin. Only a small minority include any Hebrew, and these, mainly stereotyped phrases ("Peace" or "Peace upon his resting place"). On the other hand, a very large number are distinguished by Jewish symbols such as the seven-branched candelabrum, or menorah. The Roman epitaphs are on the whole brief, giving little more detail than the name of the deceased, sometimes with the addition of the communal position he held (e.g., grammateus, "secretary"; archon, "warden"); one of them includes a poem in Latin hexameters. Contemporary with and similar to the Roman Jewish catacombs are some of *Venosa in south Italy. Here, however, there was a tendency for the epitaphs to be longer, more elaborate and more descriptive, as in the case of that of a girl of 14 who, it is related, in a remarkable inscription in curious Late Latin, was the only child of her distinguished parents, was conveyed to her grave amid universal lamentation, and was commemorated by two rabbis and two messengers from the Holy Land (Frey, no. 611).
From Venosa and the neighboring region of south Italy a series of *tombstones also have been preserved which demonstrate how, from about the year 800, Hebrew displaced Latin and Greek in funerary epitaphs. These are now relatively long, mention Jewish schools and "scholars of the academy" (e.g., Nathan b. Ephraim of Venosa, who died in 846), and in one case incorporate poetical passages from a funerary prayer. In other lands of Europe (Greece, Gaul, Spain, Pannonia) epitaphs of the late classical period in Latin and Greek are similarly preserved: the Mérida (Spain) inscription is trilingual, in Greek, Latin, and Hebrew.
In due course, however, as knowledge of Hebrew spread and Latin came to be considered the language of the Church, the use of Hebrew became universal. From the 11th century, tombstones with epitaphs in Hebrew are preserved in Spain, France, Germany, and elsewhere. These are generally at the beginning very brief, containing little more than the name of the deceased. Later they tend to become more elaborate. The Spanish epitaphs of the 13th–14th century (collected by F. Cantera), written sometimes on all sides of raised horizontal tombstones, are veritable literary documents. The French medieval inscriptions are collected by M. Schwab. Similar collections for some other countries remain a desideratum. In Italy, from the 16th century, it became usual to incorporate in the epitaph a short poem in a stereotyped lilting meter: a very large number of those composed by R. Leone *Modena of Venice have been published by A. Berliner and R. Pacifici. Less literary, but historically of great importance, are the funerary inscriptions from such places as Prague (published by S. Hock), Frankfurt on the Main (published by M. Horovitz), Salonika (published by I.S. Emmanuel). No epitaphs are preserved from the Papal States in Italy or France (Avignon, Carpentras) during the age of the ghetto, when commemorative inscriptions over the dead were sternly forbidden.
In the 17th century, the communities established in Western Europe by the ex-Marranos reintroduced the use of vernacular on tombstones, as instanced in the epitaphs from Amsterdam (published by D. Henriques de Castro), Hamburg (collected by M. Gruenwald), Curaçao (published by I.S. Emmanuel), Barbados (published by E.M. Shilstone), Jamaica (included by J.A.P.M. Andrade in his A record of the Jews in Jamaica, 1941), New York (published by David de Sola Pool), London, Venice, Leghorn, Bordeaux, Bayonne, etc. Many of the Spanish epitaphs end with the valedictory abbreviation "SBAGDG" (Sua bendita alma goze de gloria, "May his blessed soul enjoy glory"), or something similar. Sometimes these inscriptions are bilingual (Spanish/Portuguese, and Hebrew). English (though not Dutch, German, etc., elsewhere) began to appear already in the 17th century: in 1684 the epitaph of the English court jeweler, Isaac Alvarez Nunes, in London, incorporates an English poem in Alexandrine couplets. The cemeteries of the Ashkenazi communities on the other hand did not as yet admit the vernacular. The inscriptions were here now longer and more elaborate, sometimes incorporating crude verses giving the name of the deceased in acrostic form. The inscription in the case of a man was generally headed פ״נ for פֹּה נִקְבַּר ("here lies"), for a woman, פ״ט, for פֹּה טְמוּנָה ("here is interred"). At the close, the abbreviation תנצב״ה for תְּהִי נַפְשׁוֹ צְרוּרָה בְּצְרוֹר הַחַיִּים ("May his soul be bound up in the bond of eternal life"; cf. I Sam. 25:29) was usual. This has remained the case down to the present time, and in recent times is sometimes the only Hebrew element that remains.
In the course of the 19th century in most of the countries of the Western world the vernacular began to encroach more
Cantera-Millás, Inscripciones; M. Schwab, Rapport sur les inscriptions hébraïques de la France (= Nouvelles Archives des Missions Scientifiques, 12 (1904), 143–402); A. Berliner, Luḥot Avanim, hebraeische Grabinschriften in Italien, 1 (1881); R. Pacifici, Le iscrizioni dell'antico cimetero ebraico a Venezia (1936); S. Hock, Die Familien Prags (1892); M. Horovitz, Die Inschriften des alten Friedhofs … Frankfurt a. M. (1901); I.S. Emmanuel, Mazzevot Saloniki (1963–68); D.H. de Castro, Keur van Grafsteenen … (1883); M. Gruenwald, Portugiesengraeber auf deutscher Erde (1902); I.S. Emmanuel, Precious Stones of the Jews of Curaçao (1957); E.M. Shilstone, Monumental Inscriptions in the Burial Ground of the Jewish Synagogue at Bridgetown, Barbados (1956); J.A.P.M. Andrade, A Record of the Jews in Jamaica (1941); D. de Sola Pool, Portraits Etched in Stone (1952).
Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.