There is certainly an ancient custom to put up a matzeiva (grave stone), but no less an authority than Rabbi Yaakov Yisrael Kanievsky, the Steipler, has written that there is no source that speaks of a minyan gathering together and making a ceremony. He calls it “minhag of baalei batim” (custom established by the “common folk”, ie. without rabbinic authorization) and indicates that it may be derived from non-Jewish sources. There is, however, an authoritative minhag (custom) to visit the grave upon the conclusion of sheloshim and on a yahrtzeit. I would just add, however, that once such a minhag (custom) is so widely established among religious Jews it might possibly be disrespectful to the meis (dead) not to follow it. (from Rav Yitzchak Breitowitz, Shlita)
“And Rachel died and was buried on the way to Ephrat, which is Beis Lechem. And Jacob erected a tombstone on Rachel’s grave.” (Genesis 35:19-20).
Jews have been honoring their loved one’s by erecting a tombstone since the time of our forefather, Jacob who erected a tombstone for his wife Rachel. This serves as a great comfort to their soul. In fact, in the Talmud, the word for tombstone is nefesh or soul because after the neshama goes up to the higher worlds the nefesh remains behind and hovers over the grave site.
You can further honor your loved one by inscribing words on their tombstone that honor their life.
The tombstone serves 3 purposes
- Mark the place that your loved one is buried so that relatives and friends know where they can visit your loved one.
- Designate where someone is buried so that Kohanim (who are not allowed to visit graves) know where they should not go.
- A symbol to publicly honor your loved one. In this way, the family or friends should purchase a respectable tombstone that they can afford and that will honor their loved one. Ostentatious tombstones should be avoided. It is preferable to give money to a worthy charity than to purchase an elaborate tombstone.
Unveiling is the formal dedication of the monument/tombstone. At an unveiling, a veil, cloth, or even a handkerchief draped over the stone is removed. This serves as a completion of the erection of the stone.
There are 2 opinions among the Rabbis when you should erect the tombstone. One opinion holds that you should arrange to have the tombstone erected as soon after shiva as possible. The other opinion is that you should wait 12 months from the death to erect the tombstone.
The best time to figure out what type of monument and what you will say on the tombstone is during shiva, since all of your loved one’s family and friends will be present and be able to offer their input. Use this time to think about what you should put on their tombstone.
The unveiling service consists of 5 parts:
- Reciting Psalms.
- Eulogy of the dead.
- Removal of the veil – by removing a drape, cloth, or even a handkerchief which covered the tombstone.
- Recite Malei Rachami prayer – see Art Scroll p.814.
- Reciting the Mourner’s Kaddish – in order to say kaddish a minyan of 10 Jewish men over the age of 13 must be present. If a minyan of 10 men is not present, the unveiling may be held but the Kaddish may not be recited.
 Gesher HaChaim agrees with the 12 months. Also, Beis Lechem Yehuda and Rabbi Akiva Eiger hold like this (376:4).
The articles are not meant to be halachic rulings, so please contact a posek regarding your situation. Our website is intended to be a helpful guide, but for everything contained in the articles, or to the extent that we inadvertantly made a mistake on one of the articles, please contact your local Orthodox Rabbi regarding it.