Respectful burial for wee ones
At the beginning of our memorial services, I describe myself lying in an Emergency Room in Nevada realizing that my 9 week pregnancy was over and internally fretting over what would happen to the physical remains of my pregnancy. I had already been a nurse long enough to know how these kinds of conversations went…if I even asked, I would be dismissed as burial for “miscarried” (stupid word) babies was simply not done. This felt very wrong to me, but I didn’t know what “right” would look like.
Why hadn’t anyone come up with something that would be more “right” than giving parents no options and treating tiny ones as medical waste (like the fate of my baby)?
A few years later, I was studying Clinical Pastoral Education (Hospital Chaplaincy, yea…Catholic women can be Hospital Chaplains…more on that another day) and they asked for volunteers to go pray over the babies. We were led down to the basement rather than up to Maternity as the babies were all miscarried (that word again) losses that were about to be cremated and taken to a local Catholic Cemetery. Well, THAT is closer to “right”.
Another move in my husband’s military career took us to a city where I was worked in the Neonatal ICU and was on the Bereavement Committee when the topic of burial came up again. They didn’t have to ask me twice; I nearly leapt from my chair volunteering for the project. It would be an uphill battle as our hospital is not religiously affiliated and I would first need to convince leadership that there were enough secular reasons to offer this service.
Before the project got off the ground, the nurse who headed the Bereavement Committee resigned and I applied for her job. With my new title, I had a little more leverage to get the project underway. Trouble was, I had never undertaken a project of this sort or magnitude and was as clueless as I could be. I struggled in fits and starts embarrassing myself repeatedly amongst the various stakeholders before I learned enough to proceed intelligently. It took about 18 months of work and planning to get all of the needed components in place.
Our program would provide free, respectful burial for any loss that occurred prior to birth – from conception through term stillbirth (hate that word too). Our first burial was in Oct 2006 and we buried 7 babies with a memorial service following. We have had burials quarterly since then and there were babies needing burial every single quarter.
We had 24 babies one quarter and because I had Spanish speaking families, I tried valiantly to get Spanish-speaking clergy. One local bilingual clergyman who I asked to do the service was so mean to me on the phone I wept bitter tears after speaking to him. I had prepared all 24 babies for burial and I did that task singing to their sweet souls rather than weeping, but that meany made me cry.
Doing this project was and is hard, I won’t lie. If you ever want to feel painfully inadequate, try having a funeral for 12 babies, nothing you could ever do will ever be “enough”.
I’ve had people accuse me of having agendas (my “agenda” is that they not get thrown away and that their families get treated with love and respect). I’ve had people tell me that Im “too Christian”, “too Catholic” and “not Catholic enough” (having heard all of these accusations, they must mean that Im about right. Full disclosure: the process is actually transcultural and interfaith and “everybody” is buried there. Our little city is predominantly Christian, however so sentiments expressed by families at the services tend to be Christian.
Even admitting that it is hard, I still encourage others to do this in other cities…it is NEEDED. I KNOW it really helps entire families in their healing. I have seen the poorest and the richest in our city united in the universal experience of loss and death. I have been a witness to a lot suffering and a lot of healing. I will likely never know the full benefit of this project while I’m on Earth…maybe in Heaven.
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Wow, Ive been looking for a way to do this and maybe you can direct me in a way how I can go about it. This is something i am incredibly passionate about and want to make it my life’s work! I have lost 3 babies ( 8 weeks and under) and have had 3 burials, my last baby in January even got an official plot in a cemetery and headstone. I made sure to have all my babies at home , avoiding hospitals knowing how they treat their bodies most of the time & the little rights i would have to the body once i was there. Ive done on and off 9 years of bereavement charity work- making burial outfits, blankets, momentos, caskets and memory boxes for people who lost babies and providing hospitals with these items for when this sad circumstance happens. However, dealing with ” unviable” aged babies is especially close to my heart even more so the 1st trimester babies . I want to make sure hospitals give their mothers experiencing early loss an option to the right of burial and resources to help them do so. Women dont know they have rights to this or by the time they think to do so it’s too late because the baby has already been dispose of. I have seen how it deepens their grief when they dont get to lay their baby to rest respectfully. I am not a nurse or in the medical field so i dont know how to even attempt to talk to hospitals about changing policy. All i can think of is getting the pro-life community behind this, and people experience in this field like yourself and help stop the dehumanizing of early loss. Another step is finding funeral homes & cemeteries locally who will help make this happen at little or no costs as well as regional reps to help line things up. I feel my purpose in life is to stop babies from becoming ” medical waste” and give their families the right to grieve them as they are- precious human beings and indeed their child. I just found this blog on Stand True’s blog and I am just in awe. I been trying to put a letter together for Byran Kemper as i know we share this similar experience in how we have dealt with the loss of our unborn children and hoping he could help me get my mission off the ground. As a pro-life activist myself, i find this nearly as important. If we are allowing even ” wanted” babies that died to be treated as disposable trash, how can we even begin to save the ” unwanted” ones? I would be so grateful for any advice, suggestions or direction you can give me with your experience .
This is why I started this blog, to share info with people who otherwise wouldn’t run across it. I feel passionately that every city should have a respectful burial option for wee ones, its probably easier in some ways for nurses/doctors to start them because we have connections, but we also have limitations from our employers that others wouldn’t have.
I have quite a few suggestions…
The first thing to NOT do…DO NOT make a big stink to your local hospital and accuse them of being horrible, heartless cold people for treating small babies as medical waste. I would bet you money that the upper management of your hospital has no idea this is happening on his/her watch. Going after them with pitchforks and torches will slow you down dramatically, accomplish nothing and make you look like a jerk that they will then NOT want to collaborate with.
Try to approach the whole thing gently and diplomatically. Find out which nurses in L&D do follow-up with moms who suffer losses…they will be your best advocates.
A program could be run out of a hospital, by a funeral home or by a community organization. I would make contacts with all of the above to see if anyone would be willing to take ownership of the project. If one hospital does it, see if there is a way to collaborate with any other hospital that might be in the same city.
Keep notes of all your contacts with these folks and you will quickly figure out who your allies will be.
Learn what the state laws are for pregnancy deaths and what paperwork has to be generated. In our state, any death prior to birth is documented by the hospital. Any live birth followed by death is reported by a funeral home to the state. Based on this, we determined it would be dramatically too complicated to include any babies born alive in our program. I know of another program in my state that does include them but that program is run by a funeral home (who loses a TON of money filing the forms for free) so they have the luxury to do that, but I don’t.
With agreement of your partners in this, eventually write some letters to the editor of the local paper to garner local interest that might generate funds. Be VERY VERY gentle when discussing this topic publicly, you NEVER know what peoples experiences were and there might be many people who read your article and it is the first they ever realized that their baby was likely disposed of. Your goal to decrease grief will temporarily cause a lot of grief as you explain to them why this program is needed.
The program will need money and you will need to document a money trail. Starting your own 501C3 would be a pain in the butt…see if you can ride on someone else’s coat tails…a hospital foundation or local civic group …maybe the St Vincent De Paul Society.
Dont get too preachy with people, your faith and love of your Creator will be evident. When speaking to people, you want wide buy-in from the whole city, you dont want it seen like something just for religious extremists. Tell people it is important for all people to be offered this so that they can heal from their loss.
It took 18 months from the first conversation to the first burial and I was working very quickly with a LOT of resources…you should expect it to take longer to start.
Even with you doing this for all the right reasons in the right way, you will still be hitting people in very tender places…some people will appreciate your efforts so much …other people will accuse you of everything under the sun. If you succeed dramatically at this, people will come out of the woodwork to glom on to the idea in the most bizarre ways…try to avoid that and keep it simple.
I could write all day on this, it is a very involved process. I just re-read my post and I just realized that I never mentioned that we’ve buried 359 babies. It is very labor intensive and there are moments when I think “what have I done?” but then I remind myself of what we were stuck with before. My collaborators at the cemetery, my funeral home and the ladies who play the harp at my services…they are all hard core. One graveside service was so rainy that they musicians couldn’t bring out their instruments. One of them sang and the other stood there in the rain…when I asked her why, she said “If Im not dead, I will be here.
I would be interested in with what you would replace the words “miscarriage” and “stillbirth”. I think I share your feelings about “miscarriage”, but “stillbirth” gives that sense of pause, of mindfullness, yes, of stillness in the face of an event that is in the first instant incomprehensible.
As for the matter of burials, I should first say that I am pro-choice, so I believe that the logical consequence of this conviction is that any mother whose baby dies should be given the opportunity to honour their child in the way they see fit. In my recent experience, I cannot fault either the hospital or the funeral director who accorded my grandchild all the respect that was due to this little person. I am quite sure that, once the trappings of any individual’s office have been placed into an appropriate perspective, there can be no objections to honouring the wishes of a mother who has lost a child, including all the time needed to put those wishes into words.
If I ran the universe (which Im glad I dont since I would surely mess it up terribly) I would use the phrase “pregnancy death” instead of “miscarriage” but I think I would upset and confuse people more than I would effectively communicate with them. To me still birth is better termed “infant death” as it matters not to me if the death was just before or just after birth, the dynamics are very similar.
I expect some traffic here after posting about this. If you are serious about this topic then read this article: