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What to Expect at a Jewish Unveiling

What to Expect at a Jewish Unveiling

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Photo: Aaron Housman
Photo: Aaron Housman

What Is an Unveiling?

Marking the grave of the deceased with a gravestone is an ancient Jewish custom that dates back to biblical times. The unveiling ceremony, however, is a modern innovation containing little in the way of authentic custom or rite. In Hebrew, the unveiling event is known as the hakamet hamatzeiva (“installation of the monument”), since it symbolically marks the erection of the tombstone. Held at the graveside, the ceremony typically lasts no longer than half an hour.

When Is the Unveiling Held?

Tradition tells us that the soul is finally at rest when the tombstone is erected. For that reason, many (including Chabad) erect the tombstone on the day following the seven days of shiva. Others wait 30 days, and still others wait 12 months. The headstone can be in place before the official unveiling, so if you hold an unveiling, it’s okay to get the headstone installed at the proper time and then delay the unveiling as needed. If you are waiting, be sure to factor in weather, travel schedule and the rabbi’s availability when picking a date. See here to learn which days are appropriate.

How Should I Prepare?

Unless you know otherwise, assume that nothing beyond your presence is expected.

Select a wardrobe similar to what you would wear to a funeral. For men, this can mean wearing a suit or a nice pair of slacks and a button-down shirt. For women, it can be a modest skirt and top or a dress. Men, make sure that your head is covered.

If it has been raining or snowing, make sure that your outerwear and footwear can stand up to the elements.

If it is hot outside, or if you have trouble standing, you may consider bringing a folding chair or a walker with a seat.

What Do I Need to Do?

Just follow the crowd. There is no set service, but customs have arisen over the years.

As is generally done when visiting the cemetery, some people recite Psalms, including Psalm 91. Some add Psalms 33, 16, 17, 72, 104, 130, and the verses from Psalm 119 that spell out the Hebrew name of the deceased.

In some communities (not Chabad) it is also common for a Kel Malay Rachamimprayer to be recited. All you need to do is answer “Amen” at the end of that one. If there is a minyan (quorum of 10 adult men), Kaddish may be recited as well. As before, all the participants need to do is say “Amen.”

People may also share a few words about the deceased.

The unveiling itself is fairly simple. A cloth is removed from the grave, and the inscription is “unveiled” for the first time.

See here for more unveiling customs.

Afterwards

When saying goodbye (particular when bidding farewell to the bereaved) it is customary to express the hope to meet next oyf simches, “at happy occasions.” After leaving the cemetery, wash your hands in the ritual manner, pouring from a cup onto each loosely-clenched fist three times.

Should I Attend?

If you are asking yourself this question, the answer is almost always yes. Whether you knew the deceased or are close with a surviving relative, it is appropriate to show your care by attending the unveiling, sending the very important message of concern and love.

Did you find this informative? This is part of a series of “What to Expect” articles that offer visitors a basic understanding of Jewish rituals and traditions.

Rabbi Menachem Posner serves as staff editor for Chabad.org.
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