In our tradition, a grave should be marked as soon as possible. All of our cemeteries provide temporary markers until the permanent memorial is placed. We will send the family a letter after the Sheloshim period, approximately 30 days after the funeral. This letter is to prompt you to start thinking about the monument and avoid that last minute rush for an unveiling. Please know, the process for a proper design and cut of a monument could take up to 4 months depending on the family’s wishes.
Our process usually starts with the stone itself; the size, shape, color and the basics about the rock. During this conversation, we also start to talk about the engraving, the text and images that will be on the stone. The initial conversation can begin here in the office at the time of funeral arrangement, but often families like to separate the two discussions and prefer a monument appointment soon after the funeral service. We often meet families in the cemetery for that is our best showroom. It allows the family to see sizes, design choices and maybe most importantly, how the monument weathers with varying water and soil conditions. It also allows the family to see how a color holds when it is exposed to the elements.
From there, our conversations continue about the design via phone calls, emails, mail and faxes with the family until we reach final approval. A timeline for cutting, delivery and setting is discussed in order for the family to confidently schedule their unveiling service.
An excert from The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning, Maurice Lamm
The initial sadness of the loss of a loved one evaporates in a world that demands our constant attention, but death does not easily slip out of our memory banks. The Jewish tradition insists that the dead not be forgotten, lost in the business of the here and now. Although the Sages also were insistent that the bereaved not mourn overly much, they provided guideposts to insure keeping that memory from departing completely.
The epitaph was traditionally the distilled wisdom that described the deceased in a pithy phrase engraved in concrete. It was a material symbol of the deceased’s life. Today, the monument remains important but it is rarely more informative than providing dates and names. The question is, why erect a monument at all?
“And Rachel died and was buried on the way to Ephrat, which is Bethlehem. And Jacob erected a tombstone on Rachel’s grave” (Genesis 35:19-20). Erecting a monument actually is a very ancient tradition. Whether the stone is placed directly over the grave, as a footstone, or as a headstone, the monument serves three purposes:
1. To mark the place of burial, so that priests (Kohanim) may avoid defilement from the dead – a ritual impurity that the Bible prohibits. For this purpose alone a simple marker would be sufficient.
2. To designate the grave properly, so that friends and relatives may visit it. For this, only the name of the individual on a modest stone is required.
3. To serve as a symbol of honor to the deceased buried beneath it. For his purpose the heirs should erect as respectable a monument as they can afford but no more, avoiding ostentation.
The cost of the monument usually depends on the type of monument. The expense for the monument is halachically considered part of the burial costs. Thus, it is an obligation that the heirs assume, whether or not there are sufficient funds and whether or not these monies were left specifically for this purpose. Even if the decedent willed that no stone he erected, his behest is not heeded. The cost, the size, the shape, and the lettering of the monument should be determined by the monies available to the family, the decedent’s desires, and the type of monument generally used on that particular cemetery. One should do honor to the deceased, but one should not use funds for a monument for the dead that are needed for the expenses of the living.
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 the cemetery only permits footstones, they may be used, and their small size is not considered a belittling of the deceased. In the case of an infant, or of a public charity case, a small marker may be used. Even for stillbirths and infants not surviving thirty days, markers should be used. The purpose is so that the area will be recognizable, and priests will avoid contact with ritual impurity.
Husband and wife, two unmarried sisters, mother and daughter, father and son, or two brothers frequently use double monuments. 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 marry? Will the survivor desire to be buried in the Holy Land? Is the family contemplating a long-distance move? In the moment of grief, there are feelings of guilt and love that are not always sustained in the long future. Great care should be taken before finally ordering the double monument. (Which plot a remarried spouse should occupy is considered in Chapter 2, in the section “Plot and Grave.”)
It is popularly assumed that the monument must be erected approximately twelve months after death. In reality, only a few scholars hold this view, and it is not strictly customary to follow their recommendation. There is every reason, based on major commentaries, numerous rabbinic sources, and long tradition, to arrange for the tombstone to be erected as soon after shivah as possible. The Sages considered this so important that, in certain cases, they even permitted the mourner to leave the house of mourning during shivah to make the necessary arrangements. This was considered an integral part of burial arrangements.
The reason usually given for waiting twelve months is that the tombstone serves as a reminder, and that for the first twelve months the deceased is remembered in any case by the recitation of Kaddish and the avoidance of joyous occasions. Despite this rationale, however, honoring the dead should take priority over his being remembered, and arrangements for the stone should be made as soon as practicable. Indeed, it is not appropriate to recite a eulogy, even for the very righteous, after twelve months have passed.
Those who want to wait until the end of the year surely know that this is the custom generally held by American Jews, and following this, no matter the logic, will not keep them far from Jewish tradition.
If it is not possible to arrange for the monument soon after shivah, it may wait until sheloshim or soon thereafter. Naturally, the monument makers require 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 shivah are probably an opportune time to discuss the tombstone, since the entire family is together and consultation among them is simple.
The family should take 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 monument after it is designed and engraved and before scheduling the unveiling, to check the proper location of the stone and to check the working and spelling.
Good taste, quiet dignity, and the avoidance of ostentation are the primary guidelines for selecting a monument. The cost of the monument is usually determined by the lettering, carving, ornamentation, and finish, rather than by the 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 times to the point of utter and barefaced falsehoods. Many phrases that were used could be applied only to the most righteous of people. This is no longer the type of inscription used. What is recommended is a short Hebrew descriptive phrase, such as Eshet Chayil (Woman of Valor), Ishah Chashuvah (Woman of Worth), or Ish Tam ve-Yashar (A Wholesome and Upright Man). A rabbi can provide many examples. In addition, the inscription should contain the Hebrew name of the deceased, the parents’ Hebrew and English dates of birth and death. It is most appropriate to include the Hebrew dates whenever secular dates are inscribed. An additional name, given in times of illness, is used in the monument inscription only if it was in use for more than thirty 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 in questionable taste. Some authorities even maintain that they are prohibited. It does seem that a person should be remembered without having his portrait to stare at. If already established, however, these tombstones are better left to stand legitimate, however, to have “the hands of blessing” engraved for a deceased Kohen as a perpetual reminder of the family heritage. Symbols such as a Star of David, the Tablets of the Law, or an open Torah scroll also can be sculpted on a monument.
Following are facts one should have ready when preparing to purchase a monument:
The service of unveiling or commemoration is a formal dedication of the monument. It is customary to hold the unveiling within the first year after death. It can be held at anytime between the end of shivah and the first yahrzeit.
Unveilings are held on specific days when grave visitations may be made, as outlined below. They are held in all weather and, in our day, precisely on time. With a shortage of rabbis for the large number of unveilings that are concentrated in the few Sundays of spring and fall, it clearly is advisable to call the Rabbi many weeks in advance and to set the date after consulting with him.
The unveiling ceremony is the formal removal of a veil, cloth, or handkerchief draped over the stone. It symbolizes the completion of the tombstone. The unveiling may be performed during the service by anyone the family designates.
The service consists of the recitation of several Psalms: 1, 15, 23, 90, 91, 103, and 121, and, on certain days, when the Tachanun prayer is not recited, Psalm 16; a eulogy; the removal of the veil; and the El Mal’e Rachamim and Kaddish. For purposes of reciting the Kaddish, a Minyan is required. In the Minyan are included all Jewish male adults present. If no Minyan is available, the unveiling may still be held, but without the Kaddish.
The rabbi may suggest placing a pebble on the monument upon leaving. This custom probably serves as a reminder of the family’s presence. Also, it may hark back to Biblical days when the monument was a heap of stones. Often, the elements, or roving vandals, dispersed them, and visitors placed additional stones to assure that the grave was marked.
Customarily, a rabbi will deliver the eulogy; if the family prefers, they may designate a family member or friend to do this. If the rabbi was not personally acquainted with the deceased, it is advisable to outline the deceased’s life and goals before the service. If the family is enthusiastic in its admiration, rather than bored and indifferent, the eulogy will reflect this sincerity and devotion.
Unveiling cards often are sent to friends and family several weeks in advance of the date. One should be sent to the rabbi as well. Care should be taken to record the precise location of the grave and specific and clear instructions on how to reach the cemetery and the gravesite.
In earlier ages a snack may have been served at the cemetery because of the long trip involved. Or perhaps a drink was served, so that in raising the glass of wine, mourners could say, le-chayyim, “to live,” implying “not to death.” Today, however, drinking is associated primarily with socials and bars, and a spirit of levity usually prevails. Eating and drinking on the cemetery grounds are in questionable taste. This custom should be discouraged.
Sagel Bloomfield Funeral Care has a library of appropriate readings for an unveiling service.
Contact Larry Shor at 301-340-1400 for further information or email at email@example.com
From NOMIS Publications, Funeral and Cemetery News, September 2015 issue: Sagel Bloomfield Becomes the First Area Funeral Home to offer Unique Monument Design Services