by Grattan Brown, STD, and Fr. Steve Rice, D.Min
In 2020, about 1,000,000 pregnancies ended in the loss of a child in the United States. There were about 21,000 stillbirths and, depending on the data source, 620,000 (CDC), 930,160 (Guttmacher) or more induced (elective) abortions, totaling 700,000-1,000,000+ pregnancies.
What happened to the remains of those children? In early pregnancy loss, the embryonic body passes from the womb with the lining of the uterus and cannot be distinguished. But as a pregnancy continues, the developing child’s body becomes more and more recognizable to the family and medical staff, who could prepare the body for burial.
They should have this opportunity, and in some places, they do. The Miscarriage Association in England, for example, reports that “most hospitals have sensitive disposal policies and your baby may be cremated or buried, perhaps along with the remains of other miscarried babies.” Where this opportunity does not exist, the children’s remains are often incinerated along with “medical waste,” the human tissue removed during medical procedures. And in those places, some mothers and medical staff will inevitably recognize the indignity of treating children as waste.
This was what one Episcopal priest in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Fr. Steve Rice, learned when he provided this opportunity.
Here is the story in Fr. Rice’s own words:
One October afternoon in 2016, two friends called to share that, once again, they miscarried. Compounding the grief of these graduate students was the indignity of calling clinics to find the least expensive dilation and curettage procedure. Despite firm conviction that life begins at conception, they even called Planned Parenthood, which would not assist them because the baby had already died.
The couple eventually found someone to perform the procedure and buried their child at night in a seminary cemetery.
I decided that having no decent option to bury a child is intolerable, especially in the free, prosperous, and virtue-aspiring culture of the United States. So I decided to do something about it.
Using parish connections with one of the local hospitals, I later met with the hospital’s deceased child affairs coordinator and a social worker to see if my friends’ experience was typical. I was particularly interested to know if my parish could help facilitate burials for these children. The meeting revealed much more than I expected. At least in my state, the data on fetal demise was very limited, and state statutes were ambiguous regarding the hospital’s responsibility in burying infants.
Most disturbingly, I learned that when mothers elect for “hospital disposition,” the child is incinerated along with other “medical waste.” I understand that hospitals are not in the funeral home business, but incineration with other human tissue ignores the inherent dignity of those children. The deceased child affairs coordinator, the social worker, and, I was told, many of the nurses and hospital staff agreed with me. I left that meeting committed to ask my parish for a pledge to cover the cost of cremation and burial for any deceased children left unclaimed in the hospital, with the hope of providing a viable, dignified alternative to hospital disposition.
The Community’s Response
That pledge became a non-profit organization. The Society of St Joseph of Arimathea has facilitated the dignified cremation and/or burial of nearly 700 babies, with more than 500 of them buried in our cemetery. Our work covers four kinds of cases: 1) mothers of deceased full-term babies who cannot afford the cost of cremation, 2) deceased, unclaimed full-term babies, 3) miscarriage followed by dilation and curettage, and 4) hospital induced (elective) abortions. In all cases, including hospital abortions, the mothers consent to our participation.
Our work depends on the willing participation of hospital staff in the two largest hospitals in Winston-Salem. A member of my parish, Rebecca McLean, is a strong supporter of the Society and a certified nurse anesthetist. Before a dilation and curettage, she consults with the patient and presents, along with hospital disposition, the Society’s offer to bury the child’s remains. Rebecca estimates that, when presented with the choice, 80-85% of the mothers choose the Society and burial over incineration. A large percentage of those mothers later come to the cemetery for the burial. According to Rebecca, half of pre-operative holding room staff routinely and gratefully present the Society as an alternative to hospital disposition.
The results are in the stories of women served by our parish’s Society. When a mother lost twins one Christmas week, the distraught floor nurse called my wife, Cherilyn Rice, who works at one of the hospitals as the perinatal and neonatal bereavement coordinator. The mother held her dead baby tightly, and the twin was yet to be delivered. She did not have financial resources for a funeral home and did not want hospital disposition. What that mother really wanted was some act that acknowledged the tiny baby in her arms as a person. Without really knowing what to ask for, she wanted someone to bury her child with dignity.
With the help of the Society, medical professionals like Cherilyn have become a bridge to connect mothers, their children, and their families with a parish community that sees the humanity in each of them.
Fr. Steve Rice is the rector of St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.