For the benefit of people who are preparing for a Hakamas Matzeiva, the unveiling ceremony in the cemetery, and don't know exactly what to do, I am posting some general information.
There is no Biblical or Rabbinic requirement to erect a gravestone. No such ceremony is brought anywhere in Shulchan Aruch. The rituals commonly followed at the Hakamas Matzeiva are not pursuant to any Biblical or Rabbinic instruction. They are, as are so many Jewish Funerary behaviors, a minhag, or, more precisely, a Hanhaga, (the difference being that Minhag implies a behavior that was sanctioned by religious leaders, while Hanhaga just means an accepted behavior.)
See, e.g., Igros Moshe (YD 4:57, page 282.) Reb Moshe brings that the Rambam (4 Eivel 4) paskens like Rav Shimon ben Gamliel (Yerushalmi Shekalim 2:5) that one does not build matzeivos for Tzadikim, because their Torah and their influence on the world and on their students are their matzeivos. Matzeivas Rachel, he says, was a unique Divine decree. The minhag that developed later to build matzeivos for tzadikim is, he says, primarily for the benefit of those who wish to come there to say prayers. Harav Mordechai Tendler reports that Reb Moshe said that in his area, there was no ceremony at all. The shamash would just go and put up a matzeiva.
Now, however, erecting Gravestones has become universal. Under these circumstances, it is my opinion that to not make a matzeiva would imply indifference and disrespect. Thus, the Mitzva of honoring one's parents now obligates the children to make a matzeiva. Common behaviors sometimes generate their own legal status: habits become minhagim and minhagim become dinim de'oraysa. (An illustration of this mechanism: The Taz in OC 8:4 says that although wearing a yarmulkeh was once only required of tzadikim and chasidim, now, because all religious Jews wear yarmulkehs, to NOT wear one would be an issur de'oraysa of Chukos Ha'amim.) Even so, there is no real formal or standard protocol for the Hakamas Matzeiva. Therefore, one should endeavor to arrange a ceremony that is meaningful to the mourners and friends of the niftar, and one should not be distracted by the ersatz "rituals" one finds in print.
Additionally, please note the following:
1. After my father was buried on Har Hamenuchos, we were pressured to have the Matzeiva in place for the Shloshim. I was dismayed by the need for such hasty decisions about the type of Matzeiva we wanted and the wording of the epitaph. As it turns out, this pressure came from the local tribes in Jerusalem, among whom there is, indeed, a 'minhag' to do the matzeiva quickly. This is of no relevance to anyone who has no such minhag. So pay no attention to the nattering nudniks. They can't do anything to you. They're not going to evict your loved one.
2. The usual ceremony is simple: one says the usual bracha upon entering the cemetery (Asher yatzar eschem be'din...אשר יצר אתכם בדין), followed by several chapters of tehillim like 16, 72 and 102, then reading the sets of psukim in Tehillim 119 that begin with the same letters as the niftar's given name, (not his father's name,) and the psukim that begin with the letters of the word "neshamah," then someone will say a short memorial speech, then Kaddish, then Keil Malei. In our case, we then returned to the hotel and had refreshments and several more speakers, and mincha and ma'ariv.
3. Generally, people do the Hakamas Matzeiva around the time of the Yahrtzeit. (We could not do it on the Yahrtzeit, which is Rosh Hashanna, a very difficult time for such things, especially in view of our personal family dynamics.) But the truth is that one may do it at any time; don't believe people who say it HAS to be done at one point or another. Do it when it feels right to you.
That being said, please note two things; there are valid reasons to not do it too late or too early. Delaying it for no good reason long past the Yahrtzeit seems to show lack of kibud; apparent lack of kibud is, in a sense, actual lack of kibbud. On the other hand, doing it long before the Yahrtzeit, as we did, may not be the best idea for some. The Hakamas Matzeiva, if done properly, engenders a certain sense of satisfaction, or expiation, and therefore closure: One goes away feeling that he 'did his duty' to the niftar. This feeling is certainly appropriate for the Yarhtzeit, but perhaps less so before then.
4. Rationalist as you may be, sometimes you have to admit the impingement of the metaphysical. When my parents purchased their karka, they were given an appropriate place according to their wishes and the ideas of the caretakers of Har Hamenuchos. When my sister and brother in law looked for karka, they were told there was nothing available in the area they wanted, the Chelkas Harabbanim-- there was simply no space left. A friend, visiting a relative's grave, found an open area; when this was pointed out to the chevra kadisha, they agreed that room was available for two more spots, and they sold them to them. Each of these three events took place many years apart. When my parents' mechutan was niftar ten years later, it turned out that his grave was next to the karka my father purchased. And that the spots purchased by my sister and Brother in Law were right next to theirs. This conjunction was either a coincidence on the order of dialing a number at random and getting the person you wanted to talk to, or an example of hashgacha pratis.
5. If one wishes to see the site before the ceremony, one should know that there is a minhag to NOT visit a grave twice in one day. So either go the day before, or send someone who will not attend the hakama, or view it from a distance.
6. What to say at a Hakamas Matzeiva:
a. The classic drasha: What does a matzeiva symbolize? While alive, a person grows and changes and interacts with the world. But once his life is finished, he no longer grows. He is what he has achieved in life, and that will remain forever. A stone symbolizes permanence and immutability. It no longer grows, and it no longer changes. But in truth, every man leaves behind him a legacy among the living. That legacy, like rings in a pond, continues to spread and influence all the world he has left behind. Certainly, those that were lucky enough to know him and love him carry that legacy forward, and in a sense, the niftar continues to walk in the world through his family and friends. To show that we acknowledge our duty to carry forward the work and beliefs of this person, we place a stone on the Matzeiva. True, a matzeiva is inert and no longer grows. But we, the circle of friends and family, we allow this person to continue to grow and to influence life. And so we place little stones on the matzeiva. Stone doesn't grow. But the living add stones to the matzeiva, because this stone continues to grow through our memories and the good works we are inspired by him to do.
b. (Heard from Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Weisenthal Institute, a very good man who deserves the gratitude of Jews worldwide. He said that he heard it, but he is not sure from whom.) In Hebrew, a stone is ' Even'. The letters of Even are Alef, Beis, Nun. These letters symbolize Abba, Ben, and Neched, Father, Son, and Grandson. Or, Imma, Bas, Nechda, in the feminine. A man's matzeiva is his family, and if a man was lucky enough to see a child and a grandchild, and they were lucky enough to spend time with him and will carry on his life and beliefs, he is immortal.
The following thoughts were posted two weeks ago, as I prepared to go to Israel for the Hakamas Matzeiva. As it turned out, I did not use these thoughts. The person who spoke before me delivered a drasha so moving and meaningful that anything I would have said would have been anti-climactic.
I might regret posting this, because my thoughts about what to say are more personal than appropriate for a quasi-anonymous blog. But I've gotten into the habit of posting as I think, and thinking as I post; also, every speaker knows the feeling of sitting down after speaking and realizing that he could have said this or that much better; reading what I've written in a public forum often reveals flaws that I would not have noticed until it was too late.
The Sforno in Amor, Vayikra 23:36, points out that Atzeres is used in the Torah only in regard to two yamim tovim: Shemini Atzeres and, in R'ey, Devorim 16:8, the last day of Pesach. It is only in Chazal that we find that Shavu'os is called Atzeres. He says that one of the meanings of Atzeres is gathering to recognize the kedusha of the moment. The Atzeres of Sukkos is one in which we gather to appreciate the simcha and kedusha of all the Yamim Tovim. What is the idea of Atzeres on Pesach? In R'ey, he says a remarkable thing. Why is the last day of Pesach assur be'melacha? The last day of Sukkos is not, so why is Pesach different? The answer we would all say is that the last day of Pesach commemorates the great miracle of Kri'as Yam Suf. He says a new pshat. He says that the Atzeres of Pesach doesn't commemorate the miracle of Kri'as Yam Suf; it commemorates the fact that Moshe and Bnei Yisroel gathered to say Shira for Kri'as Yam Suf.
The Issur Melacha of the last day of Pesach, its identity as a unique Yomtov, was created when Hashem saw the joy of Klal Yisroel when they experienced the nes. It was that joy, the simcha shel mitzvah of all of Klal Yisroel, that elevates the last day of Pesach above other commemorations of nissim and ge'ulos. It was the Atzeres that Klal Yisrael spontaneously did that the Torah commemorates by making it a Yom Tov. Shemini Atzeres is an Atzeres that Hashem gave to Klal Yisrael. The last day of Pesach is an Atzeres that Klal Yisrael gave to Hashem.
In Parshas Shemini, when Aharon was nischaneich and began to do the avodah, he blessed the people. Rashi says that his "Vayevarech es Ha'am" means that he said Birkas Kohanim. The Ramban asks, Birkas Kohanim was not given until Parshas Naso, long afterwards. So how could he have done Birkas Kohanim? There was no Birkas Kohanim per se at that time!
Rav Tzvi Pesach Frank, in his Har Tzvi ahl Hatorah, answers that Aharon invented Birkas Kohanim. Aharon was inspired by his ruchniusdike joy that he was able to do the avodah on behalf of Klal Yisroel. It was later that Hashem "hiskim ahl yado" and made Birkas Kohanim a cheilek of Torah. (This is why we say "Hakesuva ahl yedei Moshe...Ha'amura mipi Aharon.") But it was Aharon that said it first. The Simcha shel Mitzvah was precious to Hashem; it was chaviv. And it was that chavivus that made it worthy to become a cheilek of the Torah. Thus, we see that the Seforno and Rav Frank are expressing the same insight-- that both Az Yashir and Birkas Kohanim were spontaneous expressions of joy that came from closeness to God and the opportunity to serve Klal Yisrael.
My father, a talmid vasik of Slabodkeh in Litteh, a metzuyan among illuyim, who learned for thirteen years, day and night, with only one chavrusa, the grandson of the Alter of Slabodkeh, was unique in that way. He was not a man who smiled a great deal. He was not a man who sang much, or told jokes, or enjoyed dancing. He once told me that the Alter said that he couldn't predict what kind of life a talmid of Slabodkeh would live. But one thing he knew: that anyone who touched the handle on the front door of the yeshiva, "kein hano'eh foon oilem hazeh veht ehr shein nicht hoben", enjoyment of wordly pleasures he will certainly never have. But he had a tremendous simcha from two things: giving tzedakah and learning Torah. He put all his energy and his intellect on both these things. And when he felt he had achieved something worthy, whether it was an understanding of a gemora, or giving his hard-earned money to someone who really needed it, he became filled with an incomparable satisfaction. One time, he and his chavrusa worked for a long time on a problem in a sugya. Finally, when he and his chavrusa said a pshat that he felt was, as he said, "karov le'emes," he told his chavrusa to get up and dance with him, because he needed to express his joy with the Torah. And when he helped the poor, he enjoyed it at least as much as the recipient of his help. He might not have burst out in song, or smiled a broad smile, but that little smile, that shake of his head, his satisfied sigh, was his unique shira that expressed his simcha.
My father's Chavrusa in Slabodkeh, Harav Leizer Platzinsky, who fell into a coma the same day my father died, and passed away a few weeks later, once told his son in law that he and my father shared a room when they were bochurim. Harav Platzinsky slept, of course, in a bed. My father, he said, slept on the floor. He said that my father told him that if he slept in bed he would be too comfortable, and he would not get up as early, so he slept on the floor. And the classic story about bochurim who would put their feet into a pail of cold water so they could stay up later and learn-- that was my father. The one thing he demanded was effort, hasmada; if you were lazy, which in his terms meant that you didn't expend every ounce of your energy and intelligence on the task you were assigned, you were unworthy of respect. A masmid? That he respected. (My father once told me that in Europe, Harav Chaim Stein Shlita, who was a red-head, was called "Der Roiter Masmid.") Of course, it helped if besides being a masmid you were also an illui; he loved to talk in learning with illuyim. But as far as personal respect, it was hasmada that meant the most to him; the hard work a person puts into achieving his goals, and the chesed and gadlus a person can achieve through careful, thoughtful, hard work.
(Strangely enough, another of the Gedolei Torah with whom my father spent the war years in Samarkand, and who was one of the witnesses on his kesuva, Harav Meir Zelig Karno, was niftar in Yerushalayim within hours of my father's petirah, perhaps at the same moment.)
I attended Rav Shmuel Birnbaums' levaya some months ago, and I heard a powerful thought that applies here. We are told that the generation that followed Yosef's tenure in Mitzrayim did not remember him. How can this be? He had just saved the lives of millions; he was the most powerful man in their history; how can he have been forgotten so soon? The answer is that some men are so powerful and so great that when the elders who witnessed these things tell their children and grandchildren about them, the children think them to be legends. How can these things have been true? They must be just exaggerations; History becomes legend, legend becomes myth, and, eventually, the myths pass out of knowledge. This is what happened to Yosef. His achievements was so great that the people of the next generation assumed them to be mythical. This is what will happen to the deeds of our own great forebears. Their sacrifice, suffering, and iron will, their emunah and hasmada, is so far beyond our weak efforts that we eventually dismiss them as legends for credulous children. But we, who knew these men, know that the stories are true. Let us try to explain them to the coming generations, and to reflect, as best we can in our own behavior, the life work of these great men.