What happens at an "unveiling ceremony"? Are there prayers said, and by whom?
[Admin. note: Another related question on unveilings can be found on the JVO website at: http://www.jewishvaluesonline.org/question.php?id=134]
As was previously answered on this site, the notion of an unveiling is a modern custom. What is essential in Judaism is erecting a headstone to mark the grave, known as “Hakamat Matzevah.”
Typically, when erecting a headstone or in the contemporary “unveiling” ceremony, the following are traditionally said: a selection of psalms (Psalm 1, 16 and 23 are usually popular). Psalm 119 is arranged according to the Hebrew alphabet with 8 verses per letter. It has become a custom to read each of the 8 verses corresponding to the letters of the deceased’s Hebrew name from that Psalm.
Afterward, one should read what is written on the tombstone. Some words of eulogy are also often given then.
The ceremony would then conclude with the memorial prayer (Kayl Maleh Rahamim) and if a minyan is present and still within the year of kadish, kadish as well.
As my colleage Rabbi Schwab explained, there is no actual legal requirement to hold an unveiling ceremony or dedication of the grave marker (tombstone, matzeva). It has become a widely followed custom however and is another example of k'vod hamet (respect for the dead).
There are various opinions as to when the unveiling should take place, but this is also governed by how long it takes the monument company to produce the headstone. In all cases, the unveiling shouldn't take place until after the shloshim period (30 days since death). In America, many families wait until it is close to the one-year anniversary until erecting the headstone and having the unveiling ceremony.
A rabbi is not needed at an unveiling ceremony, but some families may choose to ask their rabbi to officiate. The service is comprised of some readings (in Hebrew, English or both), some psalms, and a special recitation when the headstone is uncovered. The traditional memorial prayer (El Malei Rachamim) is recited. The ceremony is concluded with the Mourner's Kaddish.
Any family members or friends may lead the group in the readings. It is tradition for the immediate family members to recite the Mourner's Kaddish but some follow the custom that it is recited by everyone present.
To receive a custom made Unveiling Booklet, contact me at rabbijam(@)gmail.com.
The notion of dedicating a grave marker is relatively new in Jewish life. Most authorities indicate that both the custom and its present form date from the late 19th or early 20th century. Nonetheless, I have read interpretations based on Genesis 35:20 ("Jacob set up a pillar on [Rachel's] grave), which use that text both to demonstrate that the custom of an unveiling is "rooted" in tradition and to suggest it as a model for the custom of placing a stone on the marker as a way of declaring that someone remembers, someone is still connected.
The ceremony itself is quite simple and, importantly, is not meant to be second funeral. At heart it intends to focus on the real monument or memorial, the one indelibly carved on the hearts of loved ones. The gathering is an attempt to recall, as it were, that which is deathless in the person's life, and for us to celebrate those qualities most especially. He or she was and still is a part of who we are and are yet to be.
Back to the ceremony: a few Psalms are often included, even as one may wish to incorporate some special reading, one that was meaningful to the deceased and/or provides a moment of reflection for those who gather. Often there will be some brief remarks by a Rabbi or family member(s). Generally, there is a covering of some kind on the marker, which should be removed by family, usually right before the Memorial Prayer (Kel Maleh). Should a minyan be present, the brief gathering concludes with Kaddish.
For more precise details or to discuss unique circumstances, one should consult a Rabbi or other communal leader.
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