Jews continued to be careful about marking graves. Descendants of the Kohen priestly class had to avoid contact with the dead and their resting places to remain fit for Temple service. A marker would warn a Kohen to keep his distance from the grave.
Because of the Jewish imperative to choose life, tradition calls for simple grave markers, not elaborate tombs.
Inscriptions and Symbols
Inscriptions vary by custom and preference. The secular name and dates of birth and death are standard. Hebrew name inscriptions vary. The Ashkenzaic custom had been to mention the father’s name on the stone. The Sephardic custom included the mother’s name exclusively. Many stones now include the names of both parents.
Non-Jewish sounding names, like Christopher, may be inscribed on markers in Jewish cemeteries. Unusual names are increasingly commonplace because of the many Jews-by-choice and ever changing name preferences.
Engraving photos onto the stone is not against Jewish law, but it is not a widely practiced Jewish custom, except among Jews from the former Soviet Union.
Important relationships: mother, father, teacher, great-grandmother, teacher, have found their way onto Jewish gravestones. Words like “Forever in our memory” and fond phrases “beloved” appear frequently, as in the general culture.
Hebrew acronyms of the letters Pay and Nun stand for “poh nikaver,” or “poh nitman” “here is buried.” The longer acronym Taf, Nun,Tzadi, Vet, Hey expresses t’bey nafsho(ah) tzerurah bitzror ha-hayyim which means “May his/her soul be bound up in bonds of eternal life.”
Six-pointed Stars of David are common features on Jewish stones. Some descendants of the Kohen priestly class note their lineage by engraving the spread hands of the priestly blessing on the marker. A pitcher, symbolizing the water a Levite would pour over the hands of the Kohen, marks many Levite graves.
Monument makers will want to know the name of the cemetery and the exact location of the plot. Cemeteries have guidelines regarding the style, size, and shape of the markers.
Have the spellings of the full English name and, if it is desired, the full Hebrew name of the deceased including his mother’s and father’s names. A rabbi can look up the Jewish date of birth and death for the inscription.
The Unveiling Service When to Hold an unveiling Service
American custom puts the unveiling date at least 30 days after the burial and usually closer to the first anniversary of the death, the yahrzeit. This arrangement gives survivors ample time to order the monument and allows the earth to settle around the grave so the marker will not sink or shift too much. Sephardim mark the grave much sooner. In Israel the unveiling usually coincides with the end of the 30-day period of mourning.
Dedicating the grave marker requires no formal service. There is no set time for the unveiling and though a short service that includes the El Maleh Rahamim memorial prayer and some psalms is standard, the set words don’t have to be said.
The cemetery will often supply the unveiling cloth. If not, a simple piece of fabric or even a handkerchief can be used. (An unveiling doesn’t necessary have to include a formal removal of a cloth.)
Sometimes a brief eulogy is said. The unveiling is not a second funeral. It is a chance to reminisce, to give voice to the thoughts and memories that have been awakened during the mourning period.
Generally fewer people attend an unveiling than a funeral. Ten adults should be present in order to say Kaddish at the close of the ceremony.
Food and drink are not served. Customs vary, but it is usually considered disrespectful to eat and make the light conversation that comes with eating among the dead who can’t enjoy these pleasures. Refreshments run counter to the solemnity of the unveiling. But there is an old tradition of making a “L’chaim,” offering a brief toast of “to life,” at a gravesite. This custom may have evolved to recall the Jewish belief in the everlasting life of the soul.