Infant burials are a reality that we need to not only address, but accommodate in respecting our Faith Tradition. The photograph you see here is one I took myself of a beautiful baby who died (of natural causes) shortly before he was born. His mother gave me written permission to share this photo and I do so to reinforce that babies who die are precious and need to be treated with the dignity our society should be able to afford them. Yet, as I have shared in my previous columns, each year, too many of the 925,000 babies who die of natural causes (and whose remains families have legal access to) do not receive a respectful burial.
A hundred years ago, childbirth was more dangerous that is today for both baby and mother – either or both of them dying was not uncommon. In some cities, as many as a third of babies never reached their first birthday. Death was so commonplace that people developed rituals and practices for how to care for the bodies; rituals improved from the Hellenistic era practice in Athens of throwing dead babies down a well in the center of town. (Read story here.)
In the middle of the 20th century, when there was a shift from home birth to hospital birth, the hospitals came to be the custodians of babies who died and many hospitals didn’t know what to do with them. The eventual practice of discarding small babies as medical waste was arguably worse than the well. With sincere charity, however, I don’t believe that the people who established the practice of treating tiny babies as medical waste set out to do wrong. I believe they were in a new situation that had never existed on such a scale before and they simply did not know what to do. People running hospitals today inherited a process that they never chose.
Much is written about the fact that our Faith Tradition instructs us to bury our babies. Society is in agreement with compulsory burial or cremation for babies who die somewhere after 20-24 weeks of gestation, but for ones smaller than that, we have little support for this becoming a wide practice.
Infant Burials: The Challenges
Anyone with any sense would seriously question going into a project like this. I have been insulted, accused, berated and screamed at until spit flew off their mouths. I’ve had non-Catholics tell me I’m too Catholic, and Catholics tell me that I need to speak to a Priest about “my activities” (as they walked away really fast).
Anyone would feel inadequate taking on a project like this. I understand; inadequacy is my constant companion; here is an excerpt of a letter I wrote to a young woman I was mentoring about us feeling inadequate in caring for those who suffer the deaths of their babies.
“There is a belief that if we are capable of something then we will feel it, but there are times when God picks us for something and we still feel fully unprepared….the Old Testament is filled with this “no God, find someone else” yet maybe it is us that were picked. It’s humbling to know that the baby has died and we are going to walk the first tentative steps of a long journey with a lady we just met.
I have met with over 500 people at the time of pregnancy loss and infant death; I have come to see that a gnawing sense of inadequacy (on top of the normal feelings of unfairness and sadness) is the cost of admission into the place of sacredness. It is the toll that you soul is burdened with before you step foot in that room. If and only if you are willing to accept that burden and try anyway will you possibly make any difference.
Neither of us will ever be “good enough” to deserve to be there, but in His wisdom, God looked in His tool box and decided that in addition to His Grace and other spiritual gifts, He also intended to use people who have given themselves over to be willing to be there for those who need us most.
When we do our job well, we create a fertile safe place where people feel loved and cared for. We can’t control if people heal or not, but we do control how we treat them when we know they are hurting. In time, most people heal well…most of my ladies come back to me with smiles on their faces.
Even those I have held when they wailed the screams that only a grief-stricken mom can make have come back better. What you see on that day of the death is not normally the end; it is only part of the story. I have spent time with my ladies who are healing well and they sometimes laugh until they snort. God makes us to heal, body and spirit.
Please don’t let the sadness of death scare you away from serving those you have a heart to serve, they need someone who cares about them as much as you do.”
I enter a room to speak to parents who have just suffered the death of their baby and when I exit the room the baby will still be dead. I don’t fix anything. What I actually do is to try to help the parents set new goals and see this tragedy from the point of view of still parenting their child, no matter how briefly. In the 11 years I have done this work, I have come to see that the biggest factor in the parents’ grieving process is for them to know that even in the worst circumstance – they did a good job. If a parent has to leave the hospital knowing that they were unable to secure a respectful burial for their baby, how likely is it that they will be able to feel good about how they parented their baby?
For anyone who helps families in these circumstances, you will never feel fully gratified knowing that you “fixed something” in helping these families. You will simply know that you did what you were asked to do and as Mother Teresa told us, “God does not require us to be successful only that we be faithful”.
Here are two questions I ask you to consider regarding offering infant burials in your area:
Are you a Hospital Administrator or do you know one well?
Ask them if their hospital offers a burial program or cremation/burial options for families who lose babies between conception and 20 weeks. Please don’t go after them with pitchforks and torches. I really believe that most hospital leadership has simply never been approached about this and it may have truly never crossed their minds. We need for this issue to cross their minds but let’s approach them respectfully and give them time to look into it. When it comes to using the word “cremation” with regards to hospital remains, be sure the definition of that word is understood. Most people assume any use of “cremation” involves a Funeral Home and ashes being treated respectfully. Some healthcare settings may use the word with a looser definition with no respectful destination of ashes.
Do you know of a local cemetery that is willing to offer burial spots for these tiny babies?
I know of one that offers the spaces between adult size graves which are too small to sell as adult plots. Are you a mom like Kara (link to earlier column) who finds not only a place for her baby to be buried but creates a system where many more can follow after her wee one? Kara has not only buried 9 babies, she convinced 2 local hospitals to adapt their policies on the fly to allow for families to take advantage of programs like hers. She has casket makers making caskets and stone masons carving monument stones – all because she simply asked them for help.
This past week I spoke to one of my peers at the hospital where Kara helped other parents. The nurse said to me, “Does this mean I will never again have to look at parents and tell them that there are no other options?” The relief in her voice was palpable. This reassurance is what I hope for you to hear someday, if you should find yourself in need of these services.
Infant Burials: Become An Advocate
Conventional wisdom in the media pushes us to write for wide readership and acceptance. “Create a buzz and a following” for our writing, we are told – yet here I am writing on a social issue that makes people recoil. In this article, I am trying one last time to reach the very few people who might feel God tugging at their hearts to develop a program in their area. While we can advocate for infant burials and pray that are provided for all families, this service will only happen if those called actually do the work; the logistic and physical work of having a hole dug into the earth where these tiny precious bodies rest. I will consider myself successful if only 3 people reading this article seriously consider using my encouragement to look deeper into this issue. God is not subject to conventional wisdom and as his follower and servant neither am I.
To learn about what I do and the need for infant burials, please visit my author’s page for a list of previous articles on this subject where you will find additional information.