Headstone unveiling ceremonies are a meaningful part of Jewish mourning customs. The sacred dedication of a grave marker is considered essential to the mourning process according to Jewish tradition.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- Headstone Unveiling Ceremony Programs
- Headstone Unveiling Prayer Ideas
- Headstone Unveiling Ceremony Speech or Poem Ideas
Modern headstone unveilings serve the same purpose as they have throughout history. Namely, the unveiling gives mourners an important opportunity to grieve, lend each other comfort and support, and come to terms with a loved one’s passing.
So what does a headstone ceremony actually look like, and how can you plan one yourself? There are no religious requirements for a headstone unveiling service, but there are some traditions you might want to observe. Below, we’ll provide some ideas for a meaningful and memorable unveiling ceremony.
Headstone Unveiling Ceremony Programs
The first thing to consider if you’re putting together a headstone unveiling is the program. Like Jewish funerals, which can be simple or complex, long or short, unveiling ceremonies can vary in style and order.
But unveiling ceremonies are usually quite simple, and they tend to be short—often lasting just 10 to 15 minutes. They typically include just a few readings or dedications. They traditionally have an informal, yet solemn and respectful, tone.
If you’re creating or helping create the program for a headstone unveiling ceremony, here are some ideas of what you might add.
When attendees arrive at the cemetery, the headstone should be covered with a piece of cloth, paper, or gauze, so that the inscription can’t be read. The family—and the rabbi, if present—should greet guests as they arrive.
The hosts and guests usually talk casually until everyone has arrived and it’s time to start the ceremony.
Once the guests have all arrived, you can introduce the ceremony or ask your rabbi to do so. Rabbis don't always lead or attend headstone unveilings, but in some instances, they do.
When introducing the unveiling ceremony, you or your rabbi will welcome guests and say a few short words about the deceased. This short eulogy should be an encapsulation of the person’s qualities rather than the longer speech you might give at a funeral.
You can express your gratitude for knowing the person and quickly describe how they affected your life.
3. Prayers and Readings
After introducing the unveiling ceremony and giving a short eulogy for the deceased, you can lead the group in a prayer. Usually, the ceremony leader will read one or two psalms, after which attendees should respond with, “Amen.”
You might also take this time to read a passage or a poem that relates to the deceased or mourning in general.
Next, you might ask the ceremony attendees if anyone would like to say a few words.
This is an opportunity for family members and friends who weren’t able to attend the funeral to give a eulogy. And those who were at the funeral might want to share an additional poem or passage that wasn’t included in their original speech.
5. Unveiling and dedication
Finally, it’s time for the main event: the unveiling of the headstone. Either you or the rabbi, as the leader of the ceremony, will remove the covering from the monument and “unveil” the inscription for the first time.
Whoever performs this task should read the inscription out loud once it’s revealed. You should also announce the unveiling with a short remark such as, “We dedicate this monument to (person’s name), as a symbol of our love and respect, and In recognition of all that (he/she) meant to us when (he/she) was alive.”
After the headstone is revealed, attendees may recite a special prayer called the Mourner’s Kaddish. We’ll discuss the Kaddish more in “Headstone Unveiling Prayer Ideas,” below.
Now it’s time to bring the headstone unveiling ceremony to a close. As the host of the ceremony, you might ask attendees to place pebbles or stones on the monument as a sign of respect.
This tradition is thought to trace back to days when grave markers were made up of piles of stones. It could also be related to the tradition of weighing down prayer notes with a stone. If a rabbi is leading the unveiling ceremony, they might also ask guests to place stones.
When saying goodbye to guests, it’s customary to express the hope of your next meeting being oyf symches, or “at happy occasions.” You might invite attendees to your home or a restaurant for a reception, similar to a funeral reception.
It’s also customary to wash your hands ceremonially, passing water over each hand in turn.
Headstone Unveiling Prayer Ideas
Part of most unveiling ceremonies is the recitation of prayer, either in Hebrew or in English. Again, there's no religious requirement that dictates which prayers you should recite at an unveiling ceremony. But we’ve listed some examples below.
7. Mourner’s Kaddish
The traditional Jewish prayer called the Mourner’s Kaddish is often recited just after unveiling the headstone. But you may also recite it before the unveiling.
The Mourner’s Kaddish is meant to show respect and honor for God despite the painful experience of loss. It’s one of the most important and central prayers when it comes to Jewish mourning.
But the Kaddish cannot be recited alone or even with a small group of mourners. You need 10 attendees of the Jewish faith. This group of 10 is called a minyan. Traditionally, women were excluded from this number, and you needed 10 men to form a minyan. But modern opinions around the Kaddish are more inclusive.
The Mourner’s Kaddish may be recited in either Hebrew or English.
8. El Malei Rachamim
Another deeply traditional Jewish funerary prayer is the El Malei Rachamim. El Malei Rachamim asks for menuchah nechonah or “proper rest” for the departed.
Members of the Jewish faith may recite or chant the prayer at the funeral, at the unveiling ceremony, and on many other occasions, such as when visiting the grave. The prayer is also part of many memorial services for Yom Kippur in Ashkenazi Jewish synagogues.
Below is an excerpt from El Malei Rachamim, in English:
O God, full of compassion, who dwells on high, grant perfect
rest beneath the sheltering wings of Your divine presence,
among the holy and pure who shine as the brightness of the
firmament, unto (name of the deceased person).
A number of Psalms are also commonly recited at headstone unveiling ceremonies. They can be recited in either English or Hebrew.
Below are some of the most popular psalms for headstone unveilings, as well as a short excerpt or verse from each:
- Psalm 23: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.”
- Psalm 1: “Happy is the man that hath not walked in the counsel of the wicked.”
- Psalm 121: “I will lift up mine eyes unto the mountains: From whence shall my help come? My help cometh from the Lord, Who made heaven and earth.”
- Psalm 90: “O God, You have been our refuge in every generation.”
- Psalm 32: “Happy is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.”
- Psalm 41: “Happy is he who considers the poor; the Lord will save in the day of evil.”
Headstone Unveiling Ceremony Speech or Poem Ideas
In addition to reciting prayers, the leaders and attendees of an unveiling ceremony might wish to give a speech or reading. These readings and words of farewell or remembrance should be different from those given at the funeral.
Below are some examples of what you or your attendees might give as a short speech or reading at the unveiling ceremony.
10. Short eulogy
A speech given at a headstone unveiling is similar to one given at a funeral. But it should generally be shorter and more succinct.
11. Funeral poetry
In addition to or instead of sharing a few of your own brief words, you could read all or part of a poem. There are many poems out there that are suitable for a funeral, but some are even more suitable for a headstone unveiling. Here are some of those funeral poems that may work for your unveiling ceremony:
- “We Remember Them” - Jack Reimer and Sylvan D. Kamens
- “Life Is a Journey” - Alvin Fine
- “Lot’s Wife” - Margaret Kaufman
- “Separation” - W.S. Merwin
- “An Eternal Window” - Yehuda Amichai
- “What the Living Do” - Marie Howe
- “In Blackwater Woods” - Mary Oliver
- “Mourner’s Kaddish for Everyday” - Debra Cash
- “Majority” Dana Gioia
An Age-Old Tradition
Since the very beginning of Judaism, headstones and grave markers have served as the focal point for mourning and remembrance.
In fact, the custom traces back to the Book of Genesis. According to that sacred text, Jacob erected a tombstone, or matzeveh, to mark the grave of his beloved wife, Rachel.
So when you plan or attend a headstone unveiling, you’re taking part in one of the oldest religious funerary ceremonies there is. And it’s one that not only honors the deceased but also helps surviving family and friends grieve their loss together.
- “Mourner Support: Unveiling Ceremony.” Sinai Memorial Chapel. www.sinaichapel.org/unveiling-ceremony.aspx
- “Jewish Cemetery, Burial and Mourning Customs: The Meaningful Tradition of Unveiling a Monument.” Jewish Cemetery Association of Massachusetts. www.jcam.org/Pages/Foundation/Education/articles/monument-unveiling-traditions.php