Community Effort: Infant & Miscarriage Burial Programs

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In my previous column, I shared how hospitals can develop burial programs for babies who die prior to birth. There are as many as 925,000 naturally occurring fetal/infant deaths that occur in the US each year prior to birth – 900,000 less than 20 weeks gestation and 25,000 after 20 weeks. (Another 25,000 babies who are born alive die in the US each year but for the purposes of this article we will assume that Funeral Home care is the normal process in these cases.) Traditional funeral home care is quite hard to apply to many of these early losses that occur before birth, as most of the products and services are designed for much larger people, and even when the care can be adapted to a tiny person, the cost can be prohibitive for many families.

With burial programs for tiny babies being so rare, families are left reinventing the wheel with every loss, and too often the red-tape is so great and the options so few, that tiny beings that you and I would define as “people” get disposed of by hospitals when parents can’t figure out how to fight against the status quo in the midst of their loss. As we mentioned before, it it important for families to not beat themselves up for not overcoming these situations. My loss in 1991 was one of these cases, so I know the confusion and pain of this dilemma.

While a hospital program can be a good solution in many cases, other options can be developed if hospitals refuse to provide this service, or if their offering is not fitting with Catholic burial practices. It would be ideal if information on the availability and legal details of various options were available to families at the parish and diocesan level, so that a woman/couple/family could get quick information with a few calls or clicks on a website.

Burial Laws

Burial laws most often vary by state, but smaller localities may also have limiting codes and ordinances. If an effort to research the laws is undertaken where you live, it would be really helpful if the information could be shared in an easy to access manner so that families trying to make decisions in this crisis wouldn’t have to repeat this same research.

I just ended a phone conversation with a young mother who suffered the death of her baby 3 days ago; I explained the options she has to bury her baby. It seems that she will be one of the few people I care for each year who chooses to do a private burial on family land. This is an option that few people know is possible, yet might be an option for families who live in more rural areas. I hope that your local hospitals offer this option, if it is legal where you live. There are legal restrictions to private land burials that must be adhered to and this would not be an option for people who rent their homes or live in apartments, but it may be worth considering if it is a possibility. I have cared for families who built their own caskets, dug the holes and completed the entire burial process themselves. I see an amazing amount of healing happen when family members actively care for their deceased loved one in such a clear and overt manner.

It is too common that most of the hospital staff is unaware that private land burial is an option and/or hospitals make policies more limiting than local governments wrote into the law thus limiting this options for families. This may be an option for losses from very early through term stillbirth. I had one family drive their baby to another state and do a private burial on family land. It is important that a funeral home be involved to generate the proper documents that would comply with the law to cross a state line with a deceased baby.

Another burial option I have seen is one coordinated by a funeral home. I was coached by a funeral home in developing the program I coordinate in nearby larger city. This business recognized the huge need for a program for baby burial. They independently presented the program to hospitals who are eager to have an option to offer. A program could take many forms, but this one offers families free burial and asks only that the hospitals contribute to the cost of the caskets. They use the small spaces in a large cemetery between sections that are too small for an adult burial. They have monthly burials with large memorial services so that some form of funeral is offered.

Funeral Home Options

This option is really good for funeral homes, because a specific program, while expensive, will likely be less expensive than trying to accommodate the many appeals for free or reduced cost service that they will get from families on a regular basis. While it is really kind and generous that a funeral home may sometimes give away free services in a program or to individual cases, it is important to remember that they are businesses, and may have to limit the free services they offer.

Previously I wrote about a mother I cared for who developed a burial program at a Catholic cemetery. She proposed a plan to the owners/administrators of this cemetery to provide tiny plots where she and other parents could bury babies who died before birth. In our state, documentation of death prior to birth is often done by hospitals and once that requirement is satisfied, the baby can be buried by the family or program coordinator, and might be a good option for more urban areas where private land burials would most often be prohibited. The spots we sectioned off were only 18 inches by 18 inches which would accommodate the vast majority of babies who die before birth with the option of giving 2 full spots in situations where a larger spot is needed. She worked with a company who is willing to carve names for individual brick-sized marker stones for each grave at a very reasonable price.

This sort of program could be duplicated in other areas (I was going to say “easily duplicated” but in reality nothing about this is easy; it is serious work no matter which method you pursue.) A 12 foot by 12 foot piece of land could be split into 64 18 inch square spots. In many localities, cemeteries set their own standards for what sorts of caskets/vaulting is required and because tiny infants are generally not embalmed there is no environmental toxin making a vault necessary and an earth friendly casket could be used. A company manufacturers infant transport containers that some places are using as burial caskets. Again, it would be important to make sure that the program you are developing meets all state and local laws and ordinances – but you might be surprised that families often have a wider range of legal burial options than you might have originally assumed.

I really like this last program, because ones like it can be started by churches and family groups without massive initial investment. We can step forward and make the difference that we may have long been wishing “somebody” would do.

Corporal Work of Mercy

This whole topic has been ignored in our society for a long time and its time that we pull it out of the dark corners, look at it and develop some solutions. We cannot ignore the corporal work of mercy of burying these 925,000 babies simply because its hard – anything worthwhile is hard.

The above options are not exhaustive. There may be programs that present options that combine these ideas or implement ideas that I never heard of before. Does anyone know of a program run by a local government or municipality? If you are aware of a baby burial program, please write about it in the comments section so that we can learn and share information.

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1 thought on “Community Effort: Infant & Miscarriage Burial Programs”

  1. The Orthodox Church in America has just released this beautiful “Service of Prayer After a Miscarriage or a Stillbirth” for liturgical use. This prayer service would be easily adaptable for use in an Eastern Catholic liturgical setting, since we share the celebration of the Divine Liturgy with our Orthodox Christian brothers & sisters in Christ. We Catholics would do well to offer the same for grieving parents…

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