all kinds of honouring: how to plan a baby's funeral

[Tash] In ironic retrospect, there are so many spots on our Excellent NICU/Death Adventure that make me thankful, and grateful, and relieved. One of those things is the strange fact that my husband's uncle happens to be a funeral director in NY state. At the time, it seemed altogether appropriate in its blackness, as if the reaper had cast his cloak over not just the small huddled mass of my immediate family, but all of us, scattered about and perhaps through time. My husband called him from the hospital, and I have no idea what was said, but only that "things would be taken care of." And apparently calls were made, and suddenly a funeral home materialized that would take Maddy's remains. We did all this before removing life support. Because as drained as we were, we knew after would be far worse, with our skin and souls bunched up in a pile around our shoes.

[Angie] The hospital where we delivered offered us two choices for dealing with Lucia's remains: to put our baby in mass baby burial grave after a mass baby cremation or arrange through a funeral home to have our child privately buried. We were interested in cremating her and keeping her ashes in our home. The nurses seemed confounded by such a request, seeming to suggest that no one ever had ever asked for ashes, or arranged for private cremation. They had no resources for cremation in their baby death brochures.

I knew that was wrong. I didn't realize that funeral homes arrange these things whether you have a funeral or not. We opted not to have a funeral and to have her cremated. Those were hard phone calls to make, but after the first, I realized it was much easier to deal with people who were used to dealing with death. All those people were appropriately compassionate, but business-like. There was one local funeral home who cremates on-site, and only charges 15 dollars for babies. I was not looking for such a deal, but it was more about what he said at the time, "We choose not to make a profit on these kinds of losses." That felt right to me. Also, the funeral director came to our home each time we needed to deal with him—to drop off her remains, her death certificate and the urn, rather than have us visit the funeral home. I would have paid him extra for that, but he offered to do that and we took him up on the offer.

[Julia] One of the first people we tried to call after we learned that A died was our rabbi. Rather, I asked my sister to call. She couldn't get through that night, but did early the next morning, while I was still being induced. The rabbi called us and asked if she could come to the hospital to see us. She was there within an hour and a half. She was great—comfortable in the room with us, comforting without platitudes, unflinching.

After a while we asked what should we do about burying our son—one of the most bizarre things I've ever had to ask anyone, seeing as he was still inside of me. The rabbi said that she knows just who to call, a funeral director she has worked with before, who is incredibly compassionate and thoroughly on the ball, and if we'd like, she can make the first call herself. Yes, please, we said. We never asked about price or how we would pay—I think we both just assumed that we will get the bill at the end, pay with a credit card, and deal later.

[Tash] The morning after Maddy's death, my husband bundled up and drove off to 'the home.' Isn't it strange, that places we send the elderly are 'homes,' and places we send dead people are 'homes,' and the place where my two dogs and two cats and one fish and four humans clutter and scream and laugh and occasionally vomit in inappropriate places is also a 'home'. ... He returned with a sheaf of papers, and said they didn't charge us anything. I didn't ask, but I assumed it was because the director knew my husband's uncle, or didn't charge for dealing with the tiniest of beings, or both.

[Angie] The funeral director dealing with Lucy's remains charged us nothing—not for the cremation or the urn. And cried with us. One of the more touching moments for me is when he told me that Lucy was beautiful. He was one of five people who saw her, so that meant so much to me. He deserves sainthood.

[Julia] I am grateful for the compassion, respect, and incredible humanity of the funeral director. The tenderness with which he helped us handle the casket was palpable. The only regret I have about the whole process is that I didn't think to ask whether I could come to the funeral home to help put A's funeral shroud on and get his body ready for the funeral.

[Tash] Children's performed an autopsy on Maddy, so we knew it would be a few days before "the home" would go and collect her. And I wondered how that happened exactly—there had to be some discreet secret entrance (a tunnel accessed on a side-street, like the bat-cave I imagined) because lord knows, the last thing anyone wants to see is a hearse (or unadorned van—and we all know what THAT means) driving up to Children's.

They called when they had her, and then said it would be another week or so. We didn't ask why. And on another cold day my husband drove out and collected a small box, wrapped much like a present—the size of something that might contain 4-6 excellent pieces of chocolate—enclosed in a plastic baggie. We stared at it, and put it on a shelf. I was so shell shocked I could hardly speak, and having a service seemed like the last thing either one of us wanted right now given the appalling winter conditions which matched our states of mind. We'll have a memorial service later, when it's nicer out, we thought. But we never did.

Every time I thought about a service, I got to a point about it and broke down unable to envision how that certain point would go: Would we take Bella? (God this made me feel miserable.) What would we read? The book we read again and again in the NICU? (I couldn't fathom making it past page one without sobbing.) Where would this happen? Who on earth would we invite? (We had only lived here six months, would anyone come?) Was it appropriate to invite children and make this sort of 'childlike,' or was that really macabre and grim? I hated crying, could I stand to cry in front of other people? I wanted this to be private, to be ours, to be mine. There were just too many questions, too many roadblocks, and before we knew it, time had just slipped away. We did nothing.

[Jenni] Angel Mae was very tiny, and we are fairly private people, so we chose cremation and had no services. My sister made calls for us and found a funeral home where the director was very warm and where they do these cremations free of charge, because they can’t bear to charge for them. My only regret about this was that it took almost two weeks to receive her ashes, and I wonder if this is because, as non-paying customers, we were low on the priority list.

Waiting was excruciating for me; I became sort of frozen and could not really process my grief until her ashes came home. It was a huge comfort to receive them. We have kept her ashes with us—we are not in a permanent home yet and in future may spread her ashes wherever we settle down—and memorialized her through a special mailing of seed cards on her due date.

I don’t regret not having a public service, but I do regret not taking advantage of the hospital chaplaincy service, even though we are not especially religious, simply because I wish we’d done more to ritualize and create sacred space around the time we did have with her. For the same reason, I wish we had taken more pictures, or been aware of Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, but at the time we were too much in shock to think clearly about any of these things.

I don't regret not having a service per se, although in retrospect I really think some of our relatives could have used the gravity of seeing us as we were, talking about the person that our daughter was, to help them with their attitudes towards us in the whole debacle. (As it was, some apparently thought this was about them, or it really wasn't that big of a deal—certainly something we should be able to rise above in six months or less.)

[Eric]  Zoey and Gus had a funeral that was, except for the size of the caskets, much like anyone else's. I was glad enough (in a way) because I wanted others to see that these were not just babies who died, not just blank slates, not just two potentials, two futures, or two ideas, but also actual persons. When designing the gravestones, we held true to this ideal. We rejected the softer font some thought was more appropriate for children. We declined to have balloons or teddy bears or other such graphics etched into the stones. We wanted their stones to have the same gravity as those of their neighbours. We wanted people to see that in death, they were the equals of the old. We wanted Zoey and Gus to be seen not as a special class, but as people like other people. At the same time, though, when we visit, we make sure pinwheels are properly staked into the ground by the gravestones. After all, Gus and Zoey were, and are, our children.

[Julia] At the cemetery, they asked one or both of us to come to the office to sign some paperwork. It turned out that the plot was gifted to us and all funeral expenses were paid by this fund in our city set us especially to pay for the funerals of Jewish babies (or they are donated by the participating funeral homes and the cemetery—I am not exactly sure of the mechanics, just the outcome). I think because of all the ritual requirements associated with a Jewish burial, the thought behind the fund is to relieve the parents of the need to worry about "doing it right" and/or consider whether they could afford the unexpected considerable expense.

It is also clearly a mitzva (good deed). (It turned out later that some of our friends called the funeral home before the funeral and offered to contribute to the costs, thinking that it was going to be a sizeable bill, and wanting to help us with it. They were told that there is nothing to contribute to.)

[Tash] I don't regret cremation one bit, though I do see the (usefulness) in having a place to visit, a place to meditate in, a place to caretake, just a place. We ruminate on a bench here, or distributing her ashes there, but as I type this three-plus years later, her remains still sit in a box in a baggie on my family room shelf.

Perhaps I can't let them go yet, or perhaps this is exactly where they meant to be.