As San Franciscans were celebrating the 75th anniversary of the Golden Gate Bridge 10 weeks ago, filmmaker Jenni Olson sat at home contemplating something far less festive: the 1,558 known suicide victims who died jumping off the iconic span.
One of them was a close friend, who jumped in 1995. Olson’s grief eventually led her to make “The Joy of Life,” a 2005 documentary about the bridge’s sad history of being a magnet for suicides. It screened at Sundance that year.
Then, on the bridge’s anniversary day in May, Olson suddenly had an idea: a special Yizkor (remembrance) service at her synagogue to remember those who died.
San Francisco’s Congregation Sha’ar Zahav will hold such an event, which has been titled “Yizkor for the Fallen,” on Tuesday, Aug. 7. That date marks the 75th anniversary of the first known bridge suicide, World War I veteran Harold Wobber.
Organizers expect a good turnout, with many families and friends of lost loved ones, Jewish and non-Jewish, to attend.
“We do a Yizkor service during the High Holy Days that is so moving,” Olson said of Sha’ar Zahav (which means “golden gate” in Hebrew). “I thought it would be so powerful as a remembrance, as a religious service, and also as a kind of activism project to continue to draw attention to this issue.”
Sha’ar Zahav Rabbi Camille Angel was immediately receptive to the idea of the service. Not only had one congregant died several years ago from jumping, because her synagogue boasts a large LGBT membership, Angel is acutely aware of the issue of suicide, especially as it affects LGBT teens.
“There’s been an epidemic of teen suicide related to bullying in the last few years,” Angel said. “Of course our community is touched when these things happen. It shakes us.”
At the one-hour event, the names of the 1,558 will be projected on-screen as congregant volunteers lead the assembled in prayer. A complete list of names was compiled in “The Final Leap,” a new book about the bridge’s history of suicide.
That book’s author, John Bateson of Moraga, is executive director of the Contra Costa Crisis Center and a former member of the steering committee of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
Angel will speak and Olson will recite a special Yizkor prayer she co-adapted.
It reads, in part, “May the Eternal remember the souls of the holy and pure ones who took their own lives. And may their rest be honored.”
For much of Jewish history, suicide was a badge of shame for families. Even today, in some quarters, suicide victims may not be buried in Jewish cemeteries and Kaddish may not be said for them.
Sha’ar Zahav congregant Eve Meyer, a child of Holocaust survivors and the longtime executive director of San Francisco Suicide Prevention, knows about the stigma surrounding suicide that persists within religious communities. She helped coordinate the event and will speak at the service, which she called “history making.”
Meyer noted that in Jewish and Christian traditions, the official view became “we condemn suicide, we condemn the families of those who commit suicide, we condemn them to be buried in abnormal ways. We will do all the things we can think of to proscribe this.”
While religious opinions overall have shifted toward greater understanding, the statistics on Golden Gate Bridge suicides have not changed, averaging two deaths a month. It remains the world’s number one location for suicides.
According to figures cited by Bateson, last year 37 people died by jumping off the bridge. About 100 were stopped from doing so. That means, Bateson blogged, “every 21⁄2 days last year someone went to the Golden Gate Bridge and either jumped or was stopped from jumping.”
Though a design for an angled, stainless steel net under the bridge was approved in 2008, the estimated $50 million in funding has not come through.
Why the delay?
For one thing, until now the Golden Gate Bridge Highway and Transportation District ruled out using toll monies to pay for it. On top of that, the district had been ineligible for federal funds to build a barrier (though that may soon change thanks to a transportation bill that was signed into law by President Barack Obama in June).
Another reason, said Meyers, may be the stigma associated with suicide.
She thinks too many people still don’t care. “They think these are mentally ill people,’ she said, and that even if they can’t jump from the Golden Gate Bridge, such people “will kill themselves anyway. It doesn’t occur to them that it could be someone in their own family.”
She cited a U.C. Berkeley School of Public Health long-term study of 500 people who were stopped from jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge. The study found that 94 percent of them were still alive 10 years later.
Suicide by jumping, Meyer added, “means you’re impulsive. It means you want to do something on the spur of the moment, and that’s the hazard of bridges if they are not structured so they can prevent people from jumping.”
In its initial design, the Golden Gate Bridge was supposed to have a barrier, but a late design-switch lowered the railing to around four feet. It made for a better view, but a much easier climb for suicidal people.
As far back as 1939, two years after the bridge opened, a San Francisco Call article noted that the California Highway Patrol was already wondering how to prevent suicidal leaps from the bridge. One CHP officer quoted in that story said, “Hardly two years old, the span gives promise of becoming a Mecca for despondent persons seeking self-destruction.”
The Bridge Rail Foundation has been trying to change all that. The Sausalito-based nonprofit aims to raise awareness of the decades-long suicide epidemic on the bridge and the need to do something.
So when the rest of the city celebrated the 75th anniversary of the bridge in May, the foundation set up a symbolic display of shoes to commemorate the fallen. Some of the shoes belonged to bridge suicide victims, donated by families.
The foundation is not urging the construction of a higher barrier on the bridge itself; rather, it wants a net to hang 20 feet below the pedestrian deck. That’s two stories. A fall into the net would likely cause some injury, but with the net’s natural sag, jumpers would not be able to climb out of it without help.
A net like that might have saved the life of Matthew Whitmer, who jumped off the bridge in November 2007. The body of the 20-year-old Hercules native was never found.
“People should understand these are not just numbers,” said his mother, Dayna Whitmer, who will attend the Yizkor service. “They were real-life people with families and loved ones. The ripples go on forever. They affect family, friends, co-workers and their relationships.”
Whitmer is Catholic, her husband Jewish, and the family regularly celebrated the Jewish holidays. Her husband lost one set of grandparents in Auschwitz, although his Austrian-born mother survived the Holocaust as part of the Kindertransport to England.
Decades later, the family faced more tragedy. Diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder (a kind of psychosis), Matthew first attempted suicide at age 12. With treatment and medication, he made it through high school, even participating as a student ambassador on a people-to-people program in the United Kingdom.
Matthew’s life seemed stable enough after high school. He went to Contra Costa College in San Pablo, and later enrolled in the National Holistic Institute to become a massage therapist. But at age 20, his mother said, he started hearing voices — again. Four months before graduating from the institute, with little warning, he jumped.
“The week he died, he had been trying to talk to friends,” Whitmer said. “The aftermath was very difficult because we never recovered his body. There was no witness to identify him. Two joggers said they saw/someone in a hoodie.”
Not only was Matthew’s body never recovered, he is not counted among the 1,558 official suicides. Authorities need a body for that. “It’s an undercount,” Meyer noted. “A lot of people wash out to sea.”
The actual number of deaths is certainly higher by now, but the Marin County Coroner’s office (which has jurisdiction) releases updated counts only once a year, every January. The rationale is that to issue a press release with every suicide might worsen the problem by enticing other potentially suicidal people.
The Whitmers held a sunset vigil at the Point Isabel Regional Shoreline park in Richmond a few weeks after Matthew’s 2007 death. Dayna Whitmer chose the spot because it has a commanding view of the bay and the bridge.
“Someone nudged me,” she remembered, “and pointed at Mount Tam. There was a streak of light in the sky when the [Mount Tamalpais School Observatory doors] opened. It was like Matthew was there. That helped us.”
Whitmer also got involved with the Bridge Rail Foundation and helped author Bateson compile the names for his book by combing through online newspaper articles and lists from the Marin County Coroner.
Her family staged a more elaborate memorial May 27 this year on the bridge marking what would have been Matthew Whitmer’s 25th birthday. It was the day of the 75th anniversary celebration.
Mourners celebrated his life by throwing roses into the bay. Tied to them were little bags of Irish sod, imported from the country Matthew had fallen in love with on his exchange program four years before.
“I realized people don’t understand the complexity of the issue,” said Dayna Whitmer. “The causes, the prevention of suicides. The hardest one to take is ‘It’s God’s will.’ I don’t accept that one.”
Rabbi Angel hopes the upcoming Yizkor service will bring comfort to all the families and friends in attendance. As far as she knows, no other Bay Area religious institution has staged a memorial for the bridge’s suicide victims, though in the past Saint Mary’s Catholic Church has rung its bells in remembrance.
“We’re bringing families into a religious space, perhaps for the first time in many years, to hear their loved ones honored,” Angel said.
Added Meyer of the service, “We are offering what is a uniquely Jewish form of comfort, and a unique gift that Judaism has for the world — the Yizkor — and all the ceremonial observation that has to do with comforting.”
In her role at San Francisco Suicide Prevention, Meyer handles plenty of crisis calls. She also trains professionals, including those in faith communities, to help counsel those in crisis. According to American Medical Association studies, suicide is the most preventable forms of death, in large part by restricting access to lethal means.
And by talking to a sympathetic, trained ear.
“[Clergy] are often the first people turned to when someone feels suicidal,” Meyer said. “It’s as simple as knowing the first thing you ask is: How do you want to do it? That helps clarify how much danger they are in and that you’re not afraid of them.”
For Dayna Whitmer, the upcoming Yizkor service may provide a little more closure for her and her family. “This will be very powerful,” she said. “I hope it will help people understand.”
She added that until this year she had to put her grief “on hold,” but that “now I can mourn my son. I can say goodbye.”
Yizkor for the Fallen is at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 7, at Congregation Sha’ar Zahav, 290 Dolores St., S.F. Free and open to the public. www.shaarzahav.org or (415) 861-6932.