In late June, Baby Monica was laid to rest after a funeral Mass at the Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Brooklyn, New York. She had been found, dead and discarded, in a bag surrounded by bloody clothing under a tree near a Brooklyn school.
The Life Center of New York worked with the Diocese of Brooklyn, the New York Police Department, a local funeral home and a Staten Island cemetery to arrange for the funeral.
“Baby Monica, like all of us, deserves dignity and respect in living and dying,” Life Center founder Fred Trabulsi was quoted in the New York Daily News as saying.
At 20 weeks, an ultrasound would have shown Monica’s heart, kidneys and brain hemispheres. She would have had working taste buds. She would not have been viable outside the womb, but she was a human being, and her remains were worthy of respect.
“The corpses of human embryos and fetuses, whether they have been deliberately aborted or not, must be respected, just as the remains of other human beings,” states Donum Vitae (The Gift of Life), issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1987.
Burying the dead may not sound like a controversial act, but when it involves unborn children, it can be. One news story about Baby Monica mockingly described the funeral procession as “parading a little casket.” A 2016 story about Indiana’s legislation mandating the burial or cremation of fetal remains explained that these unborn children “will be laid to rest in the way of a human” — as though the babies were anything but human.
“Why would a state create a mourning ritual for no one?” the writer asked.
The answer to such tone-deaf questions, according to pro-life groups around the country, is found in faith — and common sense.
A Corporal Act of Mercy
“It’s exactly what God asks us to do: Bury the dead,” says Eric Scheidler of the Pro-Life Action League. “It’s a corporal work of mercy.”
“And it’s what human nature calls upon us to do,” he adds. “We recognize something sacred about the human body.”
That’s why his organization partnered with Priests for Life and Citizens for a Pro-Life Society to establish the National Day of Remembrance for Aborted Children, observed each September on the second Saturday — Sept. 14 this year. Across the country, solemn prayer vigils are held at gravesites of aborted children, as well as at other sites dedicated to the memory of aborted children.
The event got its start on the 25th anniversary of the burial of more than 1,000 aborted babies — remains recovered from a lab that had received them from abortion facilities.
Burying earthly remains “acknowledges the human life force, the spirit that had been there,” says Scheidler. “It speaks to the spirit of anyone who dies — especially for these babies, who are literally treated like garbage.”
But even in cases of stillbirth and miscarriage, it isn’t always easy to proceed with a funeral and burial.
Anna Ray, who is raising eight children with her husband, Jesse, is also the mother of three miscarried boys, each of whom was buried following a funeral Mass. When her first son was miscarried, a friend involved in Elizabeth Ministry — a movement offering hope and healing on issues related to childbearing, as well as relationships and sexuality — was able to help the family through the process of arranging the baby’s funeral and burial.
“It was such a healing experience and a unifying experience with my husband, too,” Ray says now. “Prayer is so powerful, the sacraments are so powerful — and the people being willing to be there for us, to show the value of life through their actions.”
With the third miscarriage, though, the Ray family was living in a different state, and the laws were different. “I delivered the baby at home,” says Ray. “If he had been born in the hospital, I don’t know if they would have given me the baby.”
Death and the Law
It’s often the case that a baby who dies in the first 20 weeks of pregnancy cannot be issued a birth certificate or a death certificate, a situation that can complicate parents’ efforts to bury the child. Several states have attempted to pass laws requiring the burial of unborn babies, like Indiana’s (which the Supreme Court upheld earlier this year). And hospitals may have similar policies in place. Last year, the Texas Observer published an article entitled “Indoctrinated,” with the subtitle, “A Catholic hospital in Austin forces patients who miscarry to consent to fetal burials.”
“What had been a medical procedure suddenly felt like a religious rite, compounding the grief she was only beginning to process,” the author wrote about one woman’s experience at the hospital.
It’s not hard for Ray to understand how someone could feel that way. “Our culture perhaps tends to think if we don’t acknowledge something, we can act like it didn’t exist,” she says. “To bury a child could be too much of an awakening: ‘Wow, I just lost a child.’”
But that fact can’t be changed, even if some individuals or entities refuse to acknowledge it. And, regardless of any entity’s policies or laws, the Church teaches that life begins at conception. “Every human life is created in the divine image, no matter the age or stage of development. Thus the remains of children who die before birth, whether by miscarriage or abortion, should be treated with respect and dignity,” stated Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, Kansas, to the Register. The archbishop is also the chair of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Pro-Life Committee.
And the rites of the Church can bring great comfort, Archbishop Naumann said, reminding parents that “the Church commends all children who died before birth, regardless of the circumstances of their deaths, to the embrace of an all-loving Father.”
Grief and Mourning
But even parents who wish to mourn their children may be reluctant to hold a funeral, hoping instead to keep their loss quiet, notes Kelly Breaux, founder of Red Bird Ministries, in which bereaved parents serve parents who have suffered the loss of a child through death, stillbirth or miscarriage.
“I was the opposite,” says Breaux, who lost her twins (her son Talon, 15 days after birth, her daughter Emma at 3 years old). “When Talon died, I wanted an open casket. I want to make sure that no one every forgets our son, because he lived.”
That desire for intense privacy doesn’t only surround the loss of a baby, but can even surround a pregnancy. In fact, Jeannie Hannemann, founder of Elizabeth Ministry International, notes that it’s not unusual for doctors’ offices to encourage women to stay quiet about their pregnancies until after the first trimester. But that way of thinking does more to hurt women and families than to protect them, she says.
“They didn’t have the joy of celebrating with them when they’re pregnant, and now they don’t have anyone to support them after the baby has died,” she said. “As soon as you are pregnant, you want the world to share in that, to pray for you, to be part of this joy! And they’ll be able to support you if something does happen and the baby dies.”
Pregnancy impacts a woman forever. Starting about six weeks into a pregnancy, cells are exchanged between mother and baby — and some of that child’s cells will stay in the woman’s body for the rest of her life. So suggesting that a woman simply forget about a pregnancy is a literal impossibility: Her body itself cannot forget.
“If we believe life begins at conception, then we must mourn the deaths of miscarried babies, as well as those lost through abortion. We must provide rituals for these lost lives, just as we do for the lives of those who have lived for many years,” says Hannemann.
“No life should be forgotten.”
Elisabeth Deffner writes from Orange, California.