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The Unveiling

A Jewish tradition with lessons for us all.

Courtesy, Sprung Monuments
Source: Courtesy, Sprung Monuments

The Unveiling is nowhere to be found among official Jewish rituals. But American Jews have created a tradition of close family and friends gathering at the gravesite about a year after a loved one died.

The Jewish Unveiling ceremony is unusual in its brevity—about 15 or 20 minutes, a far cry from the typical marathon Jewish services which go beyond-- I should say crawl beyond--two hours.

The Unveiling ceremony is also unusual in that a rabbi needn’t preside. At my mom’s unveiling today, I did the honors.

My mom's great grandkids were there and so I started by telling an anecdote about them--That although just six years old, one of them was already writing and directing mini plays,: actually writing one-page scripts, assigning parts, and telling the actors (her sister and my wife) to "connect with the other actors." I reminded the unveiling's attendees that that anecdote is emblematic of the circle of life: Death is inevitable but replaced by the fresh generation, which gives us hope for the future.

We're not religious, so I just led the group in a couple of God-free passages, for example:

For everything there is a season, a time for every experience under heaven:
A time to be born and a time to die,
A time to plant and a time to uproot,
A time to tear down and a time to build up,
A time to weep and a time to laugh,
A time to grieve and a time to dance,
A time to throw stones and a time to gather stones,
A time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
A time to seek and a time to lose,
A time to keep and a time to discard,
A time to tear and a time to sew.

But the following was my mom’s unveiling’s most poignant and perhaps instructive moment. Her companion, and in the end, caretaker, Olga, was unable to attend so, two days earlier, by Skype, I asked her to tell me some memories she had of my mom. Here is what she said, verbatim, complete with her heavy Russian accent:

She very love life. Love husband. Then after died, boyfriend. She very like company. Seva enjoy, really enjoy dance. Never missed dance at temple except at end. Liked to dress and up dress. Seva think woman should stay beautiful any age. She like looking very good. Always ask me, "Make your hair light. I’ll pay—and you’ll look 10 years younger." She was kind.

She was like my mother. I really miss her.

She was not angry never. She was good person. I really miss her. Seva crazy about Martin. Too loved Barbara. Also Hanna, and they loved her.

Never complains. "Life is good." It is her credo:" Live today, not tomorrow because tomorrow may not come."

At the beginning of the ceremony, a cheesecloth is placed on the gravestone and it is removed at the end. At that point, I said,

We now, with love, dedicate this monument to the memory of my mother Seva Nemko, realizing that her remains lie not only in this plot of ground but in every person she knew. Amid the stress of modern times, she always looked for a way to find joy and spread joy. Much needed. We are grateful for the years we were privileged to see the upbeat way she lived and even died. She has left our midst but I know she will never leave our hearts, where her memory will endure as a gift to us forever.

Last night, the family and a few friends went to my cousin's for a long dinner. And today, after the unveiling, we went out for a long brunch. Even though we rarely see each other, just those two meals plus the unveiling made us feel close---We share genes and some environment, which makes us similar and easy to bond with each other.

I find traveling annoying yet I flew 3,000 miles to my mom’s unveiling. I feel it was worth it. Whatever your religion, if any, I commend it to you.