"And Rachel died and was buried on the way to Ephrath, which is Bethlehem. And Jacob erected a tombstone on Rachel's grave" (Genesis 35:19-20). Erecting a monument is a very ancient tradition. Whether the stone is placed directly over the grave, as a footstone or headstone, the monument serves three purposes:

  1. To mark the place of burial, so that priests may avoid defilement from the dead—a ritual impurity that the Bible prohibits. For this purpose only a simple marker would be required.

  2. To designate the grave properly, so that friends and relatives may visit it. For this, what is required is only the name of the individual on a modest stone.

  3. To serve as a symbol of honor to the deceased buried beneath it. For this purpose one should erect as respectable a monument as the heirs can afford, avoiding unnecessary ostentation.

Type of Monument

The expense for the monument is technically considered part of the burial costs. Thus, it is an obligation that the heirs assume, whether or not funds were left for this purpose. Even if the decedent willed that no stone be erected, his behest is not heeded. The cost, the size, shape and lettering of the monument should be determined by the monies available to the family and the type of monument generally used in that particular cemetery. One should do honor to the deceased, but one should not use funds for the monument which are needed for living expenses.

While the form of the marker is of little religious significance, what is important is that there be a clear, visible demarcation of the gravesite. For example, there are cemeteries that utilize small, flat stones that are flush with the earth, and it is difficult to determine whether they are footstones or headstones. These are not generally desirable, unless the whole outline of the grave is clearly evident. If only footstones are permitted by the cemetery, they may be used and the small size is not considered a belittling of the deceased. In the case of a youngster, or of a public charity case, a small permanent marker may be used. Even for stillbirths and infants not surviving 30 days, markers must be used. The purpose is so that the area will be recognizable, and priests will avoid contact with ritual impurity.

Double monuments are frequently used by man and wife, two unmarried sisters, mother and daughter, father and son, or two brothers. Caution should be taken, however, before ordering them. Might the surviving spouse remarry? If she does, will she unquestionably desire to be buried next to the first mate? Will one of the unmarried sisters remarry? Will the survivor desire to be buried in the Holy Land? Is a long-distance move contemplated? In the moment of grief, there are feelings of guilt and love that are not always sustained in the future. Great care should be taken before finally ordering the double monument. (Which plot a remarried spouse should occupy is considered above in Cemetery Plots.)

It is popularly assumed that the monument must be erected approximately 12 months after death. In reality, only few scholars hold this view, and it is not customary to follow their recommendation. There is every reason, based on major commentaries and numerous sources and long tradition, to arrange for the tombstone to be built as soon after shiva as possible. For the reasons enumerated above, especially in order to honor the deceased, one should erect the tombstone immediately after shiva. The sages considered this so important that, in certain cases, they even permitted the mourner to leave the house of mourning during shiva to make the necessary arrangements. This was considered an integral part of the burial arrangements.

The reason usually given for waiting 12 months is that the tombstone serves as a reminder, and that for the first 12 months the deceased is remembered, in any case, by the recitation of Kaddish and the avoidance of joyous occasions. Despite the rationale, however, the honoring of the dead should take priority over his being remembered, and arrangements for the stone should be made immediately. Indeed, it is not appropriate to recite a eulogy, even for the very righteous, after 12 months have passed.

If it is not possible to arrange for the monument soon after shiva, it may wait until sheloshim, or immediately thereafter. Naturally, monument-makers require much time to cut the stone, but the honor to the deceased derives from the fact that the family orders it promptly. In addition, the days of shiva are probably an opportune time to discuss the tombstone, since the entire family is gathered together and consultation among members of the family is simplified.

The family should be advised to take great care in selecting a monument maker. Recommendations of friends, and suggestions by the cemetery owners, should be sought. Members of the family should inspect the erected monument before scheduling the unveiling, to check the wording and spelling, and the proper location of the stone.

Inscription and Style

Good taste, quiet dignity, and the avoidance of ostentation are the only guidelines for selecting the monument. The cost of the monument will be determined usually by the lettering, carving, ornamentation and the finish, rather than by size alone.

Inscriptions, in past years, used to occupy the entire slate and often abounded in well-intentioned exaggerations, sometimes to the point of utter and barefaced falsehoods. Many phrases that were used could be applied only to the most righteous of men. This is no longer the type of inscription used. What is recommended is a short Hebrew descriptive phrase, in addition to the Hebrew name of the deceased and his father's Hebrew name, the full English name, and the Hebrew and English dates of birth and death. It may contain all of these or only the names. It is most appropriate, however, to include the Hebrew dates whenever Christian dates are inscribed. An additional name, given in times of illness, is used in the inscription only if it was in use for more than 30 days, and if the deceased had recovered from that illness.

Styles of monuments vary. The particular shape is of no consequence to the tradition. However, sculptured animals, or the face of the deceased, if carved in relief, are out of place in Jewish cemeteries. Photographs mounted on monuments are not in good taste. Some authorities maintain that they are prohibited. It does seem that a person should be remembered without having his portrait to stare at. If already erected, however, these tombstones should cause no disputes, and are better left to stand as they are.

Following are facts you should have ready when preparing to purchase a monument:

-The name of the cemetery and the exact location of the plot.

-The full English name.

-The full Hebrew name of the deceased and his father.

-The birthday (this may be omitted).

-The date and approximate hour of death.

-The relationship to family: mate, parent, grandparent, friend, etc.

-Jewish status: Kohen, Levi or Israelite.