Reprinted with permission from Teaching Jewish Life Cycle: Insights and Activities (A.R.E. Publishing, Inc.).
Since ancient times, it has been the custom to mark the grave with a stone or monument. After Rachel died, “Jacob erected a monument on Rachel’s grave” (Genesis 35:20). The marker or monument serves to identify the grave so that relatives will find it when they visit, honor the memory of the deceased, and identify a place of burial so that kohanim (priests) will avoid it as required by Jewish law.
Jewish tradition makes no stipulation as to the size or type of marker or monument, but most cemeteries have specific guidelines. The Jewish teaching that all are equal in death often serves as a guide to choosing an appropriate headstone.
The marker usually includes: the English and Hebrew name of the deceased, the dates of birth and death in English and Hebrew, and the relationship to other family members (i.e., father/mother, husband/wife, grandfather/grandmother, sister/ brother, etc.). Also, one often finds the Hebrew letters pay nun, standing for “po nikbar(ah), here is buried,” and the letters tav, nun, tzadee, bet, hay, standing for the phrase “May his/her soul be bound up in the bond of eternal life.”
It is customary for the grave marker to be put in place and for an unveiling ceremony to be held after the Kaddish period [11 months for parents and 30 days for other close relatives] is over, but no later than one year after the death. While many families wait until almost the full year has passed to do the unveiling, it may be done sooner; in Israel the stone is usually placed soon after sheloshim [the first 30 days of mourning].
The unveiling ceremony consists of the recitation of Psalms, a very brief eulogy encapsulating the most salient characteristics of the deceased, removing the cloth covering the headstone, the El Maleh Rahamim [God full of compassion–a prayer], and the Mourner’s Kaddish [a prayer in praise of God recited by mourners]. Traditionally, Kaddish is not recited aloud if no minyan [quorum of 10] is present.
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