A Pastoral Response to Miscarriages
How parishes respond to the loss of an unborn child
While the Church certainly proclaims all life is precious from the womb to the tomb, there is not much said when the womb is the tomb. Every parish has received that call from a desperate young mother saying: “Father, I have just been told that the baby in my womb is dead. Can we have a funeral? Where can I bury my child?” The immediate pastoral response to the first question is, “Sure.” The response to the second will differ depending on whether your parish has a cemetery. Most likely, every Catholic cemetery in the universal Church has a marked (or unmarked) grave of a miscarried child. It’s heartbreaking that the excitement and anticipation of a child comes to a crushing halt for the parents in this situation.
Unfortunately, the news is more prevalent than most imagine. Twenty-five percent of pregnancies end in a miscarriage; albeit, most are so early in the pregnancy the mother may not know she was pregnant until the miscarriage. This statistic is why many parents wait until the second trimester to announce the pregnancy. Though, once the parents are aware there is a baby in the womb, it does not matter at what stage — zygote, embryo or fetus — the development is: This is their child! When their child dies, they want to acknowledge its life.
Since it is customary to contact the church at a time of death, families do the same here. Catholic (and most non-Catholic) hospitals provide a pastoral response to bury a child that is miscarried in its hospital. But what happens when the child is miscarried at home, which is many? Young families have been saving their money to buy bassinets and car seats, not to purchase a grave and a coffin. It is the latter reality that prompted the Offices of Respect Life and Cemeteries in the Archdiocese of Baltimore to combine their missions so, when that desperate call is answered, the priest can say, “Yes, we can do both.”
Have you ever initiated a ministry that, as soon as you begin to explore its possibility, you knew — you knew this is exactly what you were supposed to be doing? This became one of those ministries for the two offices. One such experience was ironically at the very moment we were consulting with the director of the State Anatomy Board in his office, which reeked of formaldehyde, my phone kept buzzing in my pocket. When the meeting was finished, the message I checked was from a brother priest asking, “Patrick, a parishioner just called and she wants to bury her child in her backyard, what can I do?” Now, several years later, each parish can respond to that question with, “There is no need to bury your child in the backyard as the Archdiocese Holy Innocents Ministry will bury your child in sacred ground.”
Semiannually, the children are buried simultaneously (not commingled) in a common grave in a garden dedicated to this ministry. While the ministry is not for every family, as some families want a separate grave, it meets the need of most who want to know where their child is, a place to visit and receive comfort from and with the many families who are at the burial sharing the same loss. The families realize they are not alone in their grief.
Miscarriages still, unfortunately, carry not just the pain of loss but also the fear that it might happen again. There are too many instances of multiple miscarriages for a family. Along with the pain and fear, often a stigma is felt and there is no mention of it happening. So many stories are never told. Since the start of this ministry, there has not been a moment whereby the ministry is mentioned in passing that the person (man or woman) has not shared their story: “My sister had a miscarriage”; “My mother never told me until decades later that I had an older sibling”; and so on. Families did not speak of it. There are so many stories where there was no closure for the family, no place to bury, or it was so early in the pregnancy that there was nothing to bury. During November, near the feast of All Souls, vespers is celebrated for miscarried children. People of all ages come and mourn the child they never met, but never forgot.
FATHER PATRICK M. CARRION is the pastor of the Catholic Community of South Baltimore and the director of the Baltimore Archdiocesan Office of Cemetery Management.