Headstones are a common way to identify the grave and honor the memory of the deceased. In the Jewish faith, the headstone plays a large role in the remembrance of loved ones. Unlike in other traditions, Jewish families do not include the headstone with the burial ceremony. Instead, the headstone is unveiled after the conclusion of the process of sitting shiva.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- What is a Jewish Unveiling Ceremony?
- What Happens During an Unveiling?
- What to Wear to an Unveiling
- What to Say at an Unveiling
Jewish funeral traditions developed over centuries to become the familiar practices they’re known as today. The unveiling is a way to honor the deceased during a time of reflection. The entire family comes together one final time to offer condolences, say prayers, and reflect on their deceased relative. In this guide, we’ll uncover the history and tradition behind the Jewish practice of unveiling the tombstone.
What is a Jewish Unveiling Ceremony?
A Jewish unveiling ceremony is the process of gathering at the gravesite to place the tomb marker. The headstone itself is not placed at the time of burial, unlike other faiths and traditions. Instead, a stone is used after the initial burial to mark the grave.
The grave marker is only placed during the unveiling ceremony. This is held after the Kaddish period ends. The Kaddish period is a time of mourning, and its length of time varies depending on the deceased’s relationship to relatives. For parents, the Kaddish period is 11 months. For other relatives, it’s 30 days. However, the unveiling is never done more than a day after the death.
The unveiling and shiva
Most families do the unveiling after the first 30 days of mourning to mark the conclusion of the shiva process. Shiva is the Hebrew word for seven, and this is the typical mourning period that follows the death of a close loved one.
During shiva, the family is reflective and mournful. They might participate in prayers and other religious customs to bring comfort. The family does not work or complete non-essential errands while sitting shiva.
The unveiling ceremony indicates the end of the shiva mourning period. The length of time, however, is up to the individual family and their wishes.
History of unveiling
In Judaism, the practice of unveiling is a relatively recent phenomenon. In the past, it was customary for Jewish headstones to include a ceremony when they were placed at the burial site. However, it took place immediately after the death during the burial ceremony.
Recently, American Jews, in particular, adopted the custom of unveiling the tombstone within a year of the death. This is an event that’s typically only open to close friends and family, so it’s more intimate than the initial burial. Since Jewish law limits the number of times family should visit loved one’s graves, this adapted as a way to honor the deceased after the mourning period ends.
What Happens During an Unveiling?
There are many different parts of the unveiling ceremony in Jewish tradition. Though brief, each part of this practice carries its own significance. The specifics of each event depends on the family member’s and their wishes.
Who attends the unveiling?
The unveiling is not attended by the same guest list as the funeral or burial ceremony. It’s typically attended by close friends and family. It may or may not include a rabbi or other religious leader.
There are no strict rules about who can attend. The family might invite anyone who they feel is necessary for this day. Traditionally, a rabbi officiates the proceedings, but this isn’t required.
What is the order of events?
There is a specific order of events, though the family does not need to do every single section. First, there is a reading from the book of Psalms. The family might choose to include other Jewish funeral prayers as well. Next, a family member of the rabbi recites a eulogy honoring the deceased.
After the eulogy, there is a memorial prayer. Again, this could be by a rabbi or family member. Finally, the Kaddish is read. The rabbi or a family member then removes the veil or cover from the headstone. The family has the freedom to personalize this ceremony as much as they wish. At this point, the gravestone is officially dedicated in the deceased’s honor.
What is unique about Jewish gravestones?
It’s also important to understand the significance of Jewish headstones. The marker itself is free of excessive decoration or design. It’s very simple, including the English and Hebrew name of the deceased as well as their birth and death date. The deceased’s relationships might also be listed as well (i.e. husband/wife, father/mother, etc.). There are usually important Hebrew letters referring to the burial place.
In the Jewish faith, the tombstone is a way to identify the grave for relatives. In addition, it identifies this as a place of burial so kohanim avoid the location. Kohanim are any descendants of ancient Jewish priests. Under Jewish law, kohanim have special honors and regulations. Ultimately, the headstone carries great significance in the Jewish faith.
What to Wear to an Unveiling
Unless instructed otherwise by the family, your wardrobe should follow the traditional custom for funerals. Dress conservatively in dark, neutral colors. Men typically wear a suit or nice slacks. Women dress modestly in a skirt, slacks, or a dress.
Men, in particular, should ensure their head is covered, usually by a kippah. If you don’t have a kippah or you’re not Jewish, you can wear a nice hat instead. When in doubt, ask the family what their particular expectations are. An unveiling is not as formal as a funeral, but you should still dress appropriately for the occasion.
What to Say at an Unveiling
An unveiling is a time to express Jewish condolences and traditional support. During the unveiling ceremony, you don’t need to bring anything but yourself. No gifts are necessary, and they might not be welcome. However, preparing a few words to say to the family or about the deceased is a good way to ensure you’re paying respects properly.
What to say to the grieving
To the grieving, it’s best to say less. This is a ceremony to help mourners find peace. If you’re attending in support of the immediate family, avoid overstepping any boundaries. When prayers are spoken, follow along or answer “Amen” when appropriate. Otherwise, the following are always considerate messages to the grieving:
- I’m sorry for your loss.
- I keep [name of the deceased] and your family in my thoughts and prayers.
- Thank you for inviting me to this beautiful ceremony. Let me know how I can offer support.
If invited, there might be an opportunity to say a few words about the deceased during the ceremony. If you choose to speak, keep your message short and sweet. A few words about the individual’s impact and what the means to you is more than enough.
Finally, when leaving the ceremony, it’s customary to say a Hebrew phrase. The common saying is “oyf simches” which means you hope to meet again for “happy occasions.”
What immediate family can say to attendees or during the service
As an immediate family member, it’s appropriate to thank guests for taking the time to join you on this occasion. This ceremony is an intimate affair. Those who join you are close friends and family, and you should thank them for their support during this difficult time. Any of these phrases show how much you care:
- Please accept my deepest thanks for your support during this time.
- [Deceased’s name] would have valued you being here today. Thank you.
- My family thanks you for your presence today.
Final Goodbyes during the Unveiling Ceremony
The headstone unveiling is a large part of the Jewish burial tradition, though it’s not as commonly talked about as the funeral itself. This practice signifies the end of mourning and a return to “normal” life after the death of a loved one. It’s an intimate occasion to remember the deceased with close friends and family.
What type of ceremony do you want to honor your own passing? Start end-of-life planning today to prepare your family to make these decisions when the time comes. From your headstone unveiling to other customs, this is your way to say your final goodbye to those you love.
Want to learn more? Read our guide on Jewish headstone types, including details on designs, costs, and more.
- Burns, Edward. “The Study of Medicine by Kohanim.” Yeshiva University. YU.edu.
- “Encyclopedic Dictionary: Yiddish.” Zionism and Israel. Zionism-israel.com.
- Golinkin, David. “How Long Should a Child Recite the Mourners’ Kaddish for a Parent?” Schechter Institutes. January 2013. Schechter.edu.
- Popovsky, Mark. “Jewish Ritual, Reality, and the Response at the End of Life.” Duke: Divinity: 41. May 2007. Divinity.Duke.edu.
- “What happens at an ‘Unveiling.’” Ohr Somayach: Ask The Rabbi. OHR.edu.