Updated 11/14/15 to reflect my experiences with my 4th miscarriage.
The loss of a child is a nightmare for every parent. In the first few hours and days of grief and shock, it’s hard to know what to do. It’s especially hard when the loss occurs in early pregnancy, since our culture isn’t accustomed to treating unborn babies as human beings — and this happens even in pro-life circles.
If you are reading this article because you recently lost a baby via miscarriage, there are three things I want you to know:
1. I am so sorry for the loss of your baby.
2. You have the right to bury your baby.
3. If you did not bury your baby, do not not feel ashamed or guilty. We can only do our best in the circumstances we’re in according to the knowledge that we have.
I have been in this unfortunate position four times. My second loss was very early (5w6d) and happened late at night while I was in the emergency room. In our shock and grief, my husband and I didn’t think to try and save any discernible remains, and the baby, whom we named Chris, was so tiny at that point that we likely would not have been able to identify his/her body amid the blood and tissue.
With my first, third, and fourth losses, my husband and I chose to bury the baby at our local Catholic cemetery. I had a D&C in all three of these cases, and we were able to obtain the baby’s remains from the hospital.
If you are waiting for a miscarriage to occur at home, or if you suspect one will occur, it’s important to be prepared to save the baby’s remains for burial, if you so choose. The site Catholic Miscarriage Support has excellent and detailed advice regarding supplies to have on hand and what to expect before, during, and after the miscarriage, and they also provide advice regarding how to store the baby’s remains until burial. I don’t have any experience with this aspect of miscarriage management, so I recommend reading the advice linked above instead.
If you will undergo a D&C, you need to insist that the baby’s remains be returned to you and released to either you, your husband, or a local funeral home. Unfortunately, this is not an easy process simply because the request is rare. It may be different with an authentically Catholic hospital (I have never been a patient at one during a miscarriage situation so I have no idea), but both hospitals where I obtained my D&Cs were secular and, therefore, very nonplussed. “This is not a common request,” my OB said to me as he was trying to figure out the paperwork involved. The following is my most recent experience with burying my miscarried child, specific to the state of Arizona, and advice for anyone going through the same thing.
Obtaining the Baby’s Remains from the Hospital
Once you arrive at the hospital for the D&C, tell every single medical professional you encounter at the hospital that you want the baby’s remains returned to you for burial. Tell your doctor. Tell your anesthesiologist. Tell every nurse who comes to your bedside for any purpose. Read every paragraph on every page of paperwork given to you to sign to make sure that you’re not giving them permission to dispose of the baby’s body as medical waste (and if you find paperwork with that clause, cross it out and write in the margin that you want the baby’s remains returned to you for burial – and initial it). We wrote or had the nurses write on every single piece of paper relating to the procedure that we did not want the pathology department to dispose of the baby’s remains; they were to be released to us after appropriate testing had been concluded. Perhaps it was overkill but we wanted to make absolutely sure that everyone was on the same page.
Above all, stand your ground. You may encounter resistance from your doctor, the hospital, and/or other medical staff. Thankfully we only encountered confusion, but I’ve heard stories from other parents who were treated very callously when they requested their baby’s remains. “They’re just products of conception.” “It’s not really a baby.” “It’s against the law to release medical waste.” None of those statements are true. You have the right to your baby’s remains, and you have the right to bury your baby. If the hospital does not have a process for releasing the baby’s remains, then they need to develop one. (Incidentally, we met with the funeral home on the morning of my D&C, and they were very helpful regarding arrangements. The representative we spoke with gave us her cell phone number and told us to have the hospital call her if we had any issues, so if possible, I recommend letting the funeral home run interference if you run into any resistance.)
With my most recent loss and D&C (June 2, 2015 – we named the baby Francis), our first step was, prior to the procedure, filling out special paperwork authorizing the hospital to release Francis’ remains. One of the forms asked my purpose for the remains, and I wrote, “Burial of my child.” I was determined that everyone who read that paperwork would know that we recognized our baby for who s/he was — a valuable, beloved child.
Per the state of Arizona, part of the paperwork we filled out at the hospital included a Fetal Death Certificate. We had someone from the Records department of the hospital go over it to make sure that everything was filled out correctly to avoid any delays due to incomplete paperwork. After the procedure, the doctor signed off on it (this was required), and then the hospital transmitted it electronically to the state Office of Vital Records. We also received a copy.
Two days later, my husband went to the local county Vital Records office with our copy of the Fetal Death Certificate. He obtained an official copy of the certificate from Vital Records, and with that official copy he applied for and received a permit to transport human remains, known as a disposition-transit permit, effective for 24 hours.
Francis’ remains had been sent to another hospital’s pathology department for identification (i.e., a medical technician had to make sure all parts were accounted for). We had the option to have the remains released with or without preservative. ( I don’t think our funeral home had a preference but that may be something to check on with your funeral home.) We had said that preservative was fine but for some reason the pathology department chose not to use it.
Once that was done, the remains were returned to our local hospital, and my husband was notified that he could pick them up. He did so that day, permit in hand, and delivered them to the funeral home, who had agreed to hold the remains for us until burial. We had to give them a copy of the permit for their records. (We had the option to keep Francis’ remains at home and bring them to the cemetery ourselves the next day, but we asked the funeral home if they could hold them for us instead, and they agreed.)
Note: Our experience in Fargo was fairly similar to the above, except that Noel’s remains were released directly to the funeral home from the hospital, thus avoiding the need to get a disposition-transit permit or similar. The process will likely vary depending what state you’re in and their specific processes, or maybe it varies depending on the funeral home in question.
I became pregnant again in August 2015; unfortunately, at my 12 week appointment on 10/28/15 it was discovered that we had lost another child — our baby, whom we named Jude, had no heartbeat. You can read more about that loss here.
Our experience with Jude’s loss, delivery, and burial was much the same as Francis’, with two notable exceptions.
First, when we asked for the paperwork for the Fetal Death Certificate, we were also given a paper stating that we had three options when it came to the disposition of the baby’s remains. We could let the hospital handle the disposition and choose to have the remains cremated and interred either at the local Catholic cemetery – in fact, in the exact same section in which we had buried Francis – or scattered in the Superstition Mountains. The paper stated that this would be done in 30 days’ time. We could also choose to have the remains released to a local funeral home, or we could choose to have the remains released to us.
I found this remarkable because we were not given these options when we delivered Francis. We asked our nurses if this was a new program but they didn’t know.
We ultimately chose to have the Jude’s remains released to us so that we could have our own private graveside service, as we’d had for Francis and Noel, but I was thrilled to learn that there was an option for a Catholic burial for the children whose parents would want one but couldn’t physically or emotionally handle coordinating it themselves.
Secondly, it turned out that Arizona’s laws regarding Fetal Death Certificates had changed as of October 1, 2015, and we no longer needed my OB/GYN to sign off on the Fetal Death Certificate in order to get the disposition-transit permit. This made the paperwork significantly easier to deal with, as all we needed was a witness from the hospital (e.g., an employee) to sign.
Amid my grief, I was happy to see that the process had gotten easier.
The funeral home had previously given us a small casket (you can see a photo of it here) to give to the pathology department to hold Francis’ remains. If you are required to supply your own casket, Heaven’s Gain sells small caskets for miscarried children. Otherwise, a small wooden or ceramic box would work best (you can probably find these at a local craft store such as Hobby Lobby). We purchased a small ceramic box with a cross and bible verse on it for Noel’s casket; I found it at a Family Christian store.
Many Catholic cemeteries have special sections especially for miscarried babies under 20 weeks gestation, and that is the option we chose. Babies over 20 weeks are considered stillbirths, not miscarriages, and are usually buried in a section of the cemetery reserved for infants and children. If you encounter a Catholic cemetery that doesn’t have a special section for miscarried babies, remind them that burying the dead is a corporal work of mercy. In my humble opinion, every Catholic cemetery should have such a section, and should offer their services free of charge in a pregnancy loss or stillbirth situation.
We buried our second child, Noel, in a special section for miscarried children at Holy Cross Catholic Cemetery (North) in Fargo, ND. We buried our eighth and ninth children, Francis and Jude, in a special section for miscarried children (called the Rachel Mourning Baby Section) at Holy Cross Catholic Cemetery in Avondale, AZ.
You will likely need to call the cemetery directly and inquire about special sections of the cemeteries for miscarried children. Neither the website of the Diocese of Fargo nor the Diocese of Phoenix mentions the special sections on their respective websites, although the Catholic Sun (newspaper of the Diocese of Phoenix) wrote an article about them in 2012.
Thankfully, our parish priest was able to direct us to Holy Cross Mortuary when my husband called to tell him about our loss. We also arranged to have a deacon from our church present at the burials; he conducted a beautiful graveside ceremony each time. I believe that he read from the Funeral Rites for Children, as found in the Order of Christian Funerals (OCF) – the book which contains all Catholic funeral rites. The Funeral Rite for Children includes special prayers for children who died without baptism. We had a graveside ceremony and a memorial Mass for Noel as well, and we plan to have a memorial Mass for Noel, Chris, and Francis in August 2015.
Another option for a funeral rite is the Blessing of Parents After a Miscarriage. There are also several archdioceses that have developed special rites especially for miscarried babies — the ones that I am aware of are Order for the Naming and Commendation of an Infant Who Died before Birth from the Diocese of Wichita (you can find a pdf of the rite here) and the Diocese of St. Louis, and a Naming Ceremony from the Diocese of Atlanta (note that it says it may only be used within the Diocese, so you may need your priest to get permission to use it elsewhere). If you know of any others, please let me know!
In all three cases, our child’s burial was handled free of charge. This is not the case in all dioceses, unfortunately, so that is something you will need to investigate. The funeral home and cemetery in Fargo handled Noel’s arrangements free of charge because we were poor at the time and could not afford to pay (I have no idea if they make similar arrangements for all miscarried children, however). The representative we spoke with at Holy Cross Mortuary here in AZ told us that they bury all miscarried children under 20 weeks gestation free of charge, and have done so for the past 13 years. We did pay $50 (each) to have Francis’ and Jude’s names carved on a common gravestone, but that was optional and the only cost we incurred.
If you have any additional questions or could use some guidance in navigating a similar situation, please don’t hesitate to contact me. I’m happy to help in any way I can.