The custom of placing a monument over the grave of a departed person is a very ancient Jewish tradition. The Book of Genesis, for example, records that Jacob erected a tombstone (Matzevah) over the grave of his wife Rachel. From Biblical times onward, wherever Jewish communities have existed, Jews have continued this practice of erecting a memorial in honor of their deceased.
The monument is erected to indicate clearly where a person is buried, so that family and friends may visit the gravesite. It is also a way of remembering and honoring the memory of the person who has died.
Today, we refer to the ceremony of formally consecrating a tombstone as an “unveiling.” While this ceremony has no origin in pre-modern Jewish life, this has become an acceptable practice today.
An unveiling takes place during the first year after death. There are no strict guidelines for the timing of an unveiling, and, while families may choose a date at any time after the end of the Shiva, it has become a contemporary practice to schedule this ceremony for some time between the end of Shloshim, the thirty day period of intensive mourning, and the first Yahrzeit, the anniversary of a death.
Psychological Function of the Unveiling
The unveiling is a mourning ritual which serves a very specific function in the healing process of the bereaved. It is not simply a perfunctory ritual, but rather, like the funeral, Shiva, Shloshim and Kaddish, the unveiling provides mourners with the opportunity for emotional and psychological healing.
The physical act of erecting and unveiling a monument allows for the expression of the sad and painful emotions of grief. Family members gather together, often from cities which are miles apart, and continue their mourning as a family, lending each other comfort and support in dealing with their grief.
For individuals who were not able to attend the funeral or Shiva, the unveiling ritual provides yet another opportunity to grieve and to acknowledge one’s loss. Although painful, this realistic experience of grief can, over time, be very healing for mourners.
During the unveiling of a monument, as one sees the name of a beloved family member etched in stone, there is a stark realization of the finality of death. The impact can be quite jarring to some, and yet, at the same time, can provide a further opportunity to accept the reality of the loss. Thus, the unveiling ritual allows mourners to face death and loss realistically, and to affirm a commitment to life and to living.
The unveiling also allows the bereaved family members to honor and to recall the memory of their departed. It is a chance to continue to reflect upon the significance of that person’s life, his or her accomplishments, and the people who were important. In a sense, through the unveiling, the memory of a person’s life is etched permanently into the collective memory of the Jewish community.
The Unveiling Service
The service for the unveiling of a monument is a short and simple one. It consists of the recitation of several Psalms; the actual removal of the veil from the memorial; the recitation of the Malei Rachamim (the Memorial Prayer) and the Kaddish. A Minyan (a gathering of 10 Jewish adults) is required for the recitation of Kaddish; however, if there is no Minyan available, the Kaddish is omitted.
At the unveiling it is certainly appropriate for a family member to choose to speak about the person who has died, or to read a supplemental poem or prayer.
Many choose to appoint an officiating rabbi to conduct the unveiling, however, this is not mandatory. The JCAM office has information on how to conduct an unveiling as well as additional poems of remembrance. Please feel free to download a copy of our Unveiling Packet and/or a remembrance poem to guide you in this important and meaningful ritual.