Sarah Breuer was only 17-years old when she died from the complications of bacterial meningitis. Only five months away from graduation, Sarah's death reverberated through the suburban high school she attended and through the close-knit Jewish community of which her family was a part.
Few of Sarah's classmates were Jewish, but the Rabbi from Temple Beth Shalom, the Breuer's Conservative congregation, visited the school to explain how the ancient rituals of her faith could provide solace to all. In keeping with Jewish custom, Sarah's burial was quickly held, but the mourning rituals extended throughout the first year after her death.
Sarah died during the night on Monday so her parents planned for the funeral to be held on Tuesday, though in cases of investigation or where an autopsy must be performed, this tradition cannot always be observed. The funeral home they contacted, while not Jewish-owned, was nevertheless familiar with their customs, and in fact, had been the principal choice for funeral services for Sarah's family and community for more than four generations. Because Jewish tradition requires that the body not be left unattended, the funeral directors came directly to the hospital room where Sarah died to take her into their care.
Taharah, ritual bathing, was carried out at the funeral home by ladies from the Hevra Kadisha, the burial society from the Breuer's congregation. Following taharah, Sarah's body was shrouded in a simple linen cloth called a tachrachim. When Sarah's grandfather died two years earlier, men from the Hevra Kadisha had performed the taharah, and in addition to the tachrachim, his prayer shawl (talit) with some of the tassels cut off was also put on him. Finally, Sarah's shrouded body was lifted into her casket which was made of simple pine with no metal hardware or ornaments, except for the wooden Star of David glued to the top.
Since the high school day ended at 2:20, Sarah's parents scheduled her funeral for 4 pm and friends began contacting friends, business associates and fellow congregants. More than 200 adults and 90 students attended Sarah's funeral, completely organized in less than eight hours.
As the service began, the Breuer's Rabbi assisted family members with K'riah, the traditional "rending of the garment." Each family member tore the collar or lapel of the dress, blouse, or suit being worn. According to custom, Sarah's parents tore their lapels on the left side (over the heart) and the rest of the family each tore theirs on the right side. The service lasted only 30 minutes, and mostly consisted of the reciting of psalms, prayers, and a brief eulogy extolling Sarah's exuberance for life and her deep compassion for others.
The burial itself was a sight many of the Breuer's non-Jewish friends had never seen. After the prayers were concluded and Sarah's casket was lowered into the grave, each of the mourners who wished to participate took turns lifting a spadeful of soil into the grave. Most of the people in attendance helped, and several students remarked that this simple act was the most meaningful part of the funeral for them. The funeral directors helped the mourners form two lines through which the family could walk as they returned to their cars and provided a basin of water near the cars in which family members could follow the Jewish tradition of washing their hands before leaving the cemetery.
In the Breuer's home, there was no reception. Instead, their home became the location for Shivah over the next seven days. Family members attended to only the most rudimentary of personal care requirements, mirrors in the home were covered, and simple foods were eaten. People from the community came to share their condolences, and each day, a group of at least ten congregants (called a minyan) joined with family members to say Kaddish, a prayer of praise that extols God's attributes.
In the words of Sarah's father, Sid, "Saying Kaddish, even when it was hard to get the words out of my mouth, was what I needed to do to regain focus after Sarah's death." Sarah's mom, Rebecca added, "As these kids came to our home, they didn't exactly know what to do-but they came. And you know what? We didn't know what to do, either. Oh, we knew the rituals and the prayers but we were totally lost. The best part of sitting Shivah, though, was that we could all find our way together."
As the first week gave way to the first month, the Breuers continued daily prayers and frequent trips to their synagogue. Then, as those early months faded, Sarah's high school class began preparing for graduation, another huge emotional challenge for the Breuers. Sarah was their only child and they wanted to do something with the money they had painstakingly saved for college. With the consultation of their Rabbi, they decided nothing could better honor Sarah's memory and fulfill the Jewish requirement of doing good for others than to use the money to endow a scholarship fund for deserving seniors at Sarah's high school.
On the afternoon of commencement, the Breuer family took their place in the front of the high school auditorium. Sid and Rebecca tearfully received their daughter's posthumous diploma from the principal as the three of them embraced. And then Sid spoke haltingly of their choice to honor three students each with $ 2,500 scholarships in Sarah's memory, and to provide funds for an endowed scholarship for future years. There was not a dry eye in the house.
The Breuer's first year of mourning drew to a close according to Jewish custom. The day before the first anniversary, family and close friends gathered at the cemetery again, this time to unveil Sarah's headstone. And as the Breuers, their family and friends left the cemetery that day, several remarked that they felt "lighter." Sarah's mother summed up the feelings of many when she wrote in her journal, "Grief isn't finished. In some ways, it never will be. But today, we've turned a corner and for the first time all year, I can start to imagine a future again."
Though the Breuer's observances are typical, there are many other nuances to Jewish mourning customs, especially in the other denominations of Judaism such as Orthodox, Reform, and Reconstructionist. To learn more, consult these resources.
- Jewish Funeral Customs
- United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism Guide to Funerals
- Brener, A. (1993). Mourning & Mitzvah: A Guided Journal for Walking the Mourner's Path Through Grief to Healing. Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights.
- Diamant, A. (1998). Saying Kaddish: How to Comfort the Dying, Bury the Dead, and Mourn as a Jew. New York: Schocken Books.
- Lamm, M. (1969). The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning. Middle Village, NY: Jonathan David Publishers.