Traditionally, there is no Jewish ceremony of an “unveiling”. There is a ceremony called “Hakamat Matzayvah” הקמת מצבה, or “Erection of a Tombstone”. There are differing practices as to when this is done. Some do so right after shiva, many after shloshim (30 days), some on the first yahrzeit (anniversary of the death), or a convenient date near that time. This topic was discussed on JVO here.
As to the cheesecloth, I wish to quote directly from the Rabbis manual of the Rabbinical Council of America:
The important matter is to erect the memorial. The timing of any gathering to recite prayers at the site is not as pressing an issue.
Also it is important to know that this gathering isnot an unveiling, and the placing of a sheet on the monument to be unveiled, is pure nonsense.
I could not agree more. The usage of a “veil” is a Christian custom, and there is no good reason to make it part of Jewish practice, and plenty of reasons to avoid it, as it is prohibited by Halacha to adopt non-Jewish religious practices as our own.
I completely concur with the background information provided by the other panelists regarding the dedication of a memorial stone. The aim of this ritual is to add holiness to what could have otherwise been a mundane act, as well as to provide another moment to honor a loved one. While I wouldn't go as far as to say that the covering of the stone in advance is nonsense, it is clearly not necessary. For those who do cover, it is clear that cheesecloth, when chosen, is only selected for practical purposes by the cemetery.
The unveiling ceremony is more of a relatively modern (instituted in the late 19th century in England and the United States) custom rather than a matter of Jewish Law. The custom reflects our desire to both dignify and formalize the erection of the stone. I also encourage families to reflect on their year of mourning, share memories and, perhaps, to share what they’ve learned in the last year. I have seen cemeteries use many different kinds of materials to cover the stone, including cheesecloth, other cloths or a sheet of paper. I suspect cheesecloth may be selected because of its white color (indicating purity), availability and low cost.
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