Jewish Burial and Memorial Traditions
Unveiling the Marker
The practice of "unveiling" has become very popular in the United States; whereby, in a ceremony that takes place approximately one year after the loved one's burial, the marker (previously covered by an "unveiling cloth") is then "unveiled" before family, relatives and close friends. It should be noted that unveiling is not a requirement in Jewish religious law (Halacha) but is more along the lines of a folk tradition. Hence, the ceremony itself may include prayer, readings, song, or whatever the the family or rabbi desire. Rabbis frequently officiate at unveilings, however one is not required.
At Judean, we recognize the Unveiling as a family's "personalized expression," and work with families to schedule them at a convenient time. However, as a cemetery we must give precedence to the burial needs of our clients - which are often scheduled on short notice. Because of this, we require that unveilings be scheduled before 9am, or after 2:30 pm (outside of burial hours). Our maintenance crew will trim the site, and clean and cover the marker, prior to your unveiling.
Burial in a Shroud
According to most historical sources, this tradition dates back to Rabbi Simeon ben Gamliel II, president of the great Sanhedrin, at a time not long after the destruction of the second temple.
"Formerly, the expense of carrying out the dead was harder on the family than the death itself. Due to this hardship, some families abandoned the corpse and fled. [This practice changed when] Rabban Gamliel [President of the Sanhedrin] disregarded his own dignity, and had his body carried out in flaxen shrouds. Afterwards, his students, and others followed his lead and had themselves carried out in flaxen shrouds."
Babylonian Talmud, Moed Katan 27a-27b
It should be noted that today, some Rabbi's allow the deceased to be buried in their clothes to comply with family wishes.
Placing Stones Upon the Graves of Loved Ones
Rabbi Jonathan Maltzman of Kol Shalom Congregation relates the story of the Tradition of "Why Stones are Placed on the Grave."
Why do we place stones on a grave? For most of us stones conjure a harsh image. It does not seem the appropriate memorial for one who had died. But stones have a special character in Judaism; in the Bible an altar is no more than a pile of stones, but it is on an altar that one offers to G-d.
The stone of which Abraham takes his son to be sacrificed is even called "hashtuyal, the foundation stone of the world." The sacred shrine in Judaism, after all, is the pile of stones - the wall of the second Temple.
In the words of the popular Israeli song "There are men with hearts of stone, and stone with the hearts of men."
So why place stones on the grave? The explanations vary from superstitious to poignant. The superstitious rationale for stones is that they keep the soul down. There is a belief, with roots in the Talmud, that souls continue to dwell for a while in graves in which they are placed. The grave, called a "beit olam," (a "permanent house") was thought to retain some aspect of the departed soul; means by which the living help the dead to "stay put". Even souls which are benign in life can, in the folk imagination, take on a certain terror in death. The "barrier" on the grave prevents the kind of haunting that formed such an important part of the Eastern European lore. The story of I.B. Singer and the plays of Yiddish theatre are rich in the mythology of Eastern European Jewry; souls who returned for whatever reason to the world of the living. Another explanation of stones on the grave is to ensure that souls remain where they belong.
Rabbi Zemel of Temple Micah tells of the tradition of standing at a Shiva service.At a recent shiva service in Potomac, the Rabbi told the following story about Rabbi Zemel.
"Rabbi Zemel noticed that all the people were standing and it reminded him of his officiating the first time at a shiva service. He went to a home in an area of Chicago much like Potomac, MD and there everyone was sitting comfortably on the couch or on lounge chairs. When he returned to the synagogue, he asked his boss how come everyone was seated. His boss told him as his first assignment he could research this. Rabbi Zemel then told of how in the olden days peoples homes were very small and in order to hold a shiva service in ones home the women would leave and the men would crowd into the home and in order to fit they would stand, thus the tradition to stand at a service started."