When a miscarriage happens – a priest’s response

‘We know that there is very limited advice for people in our situation ‘ we could put ‘it’ in the rubbish or down the toilet. We did find that ‘it’ could be buried.’

A Catholic grandmother called me one Sunday night. One of her daughters-in-law had miscarried at 11 weeks. She wanted to know what our Catholic options are. In more than 30 years of priestly service, this was the first time I have encountered this question in New Zealand.
What does a priest or a pastoral worker do when faced with such an urgent question? I sought help.

Our national Catholic bioethics centre was enormously helpful. Both the past and present directors encouraged me to offer a simple service that would be followed by either burial or cremation. The reason is simple. Every Sunday, as we pray the Creed, we say that we believe in God who creates all life, visible and invisible.

This is what happened. The grandmother told her son and daughter-in-law that they could have a simple service for their small child. Then she wisely stepped back and let them decide. They asked for a simple service of committal for their child.
Paradoxically, while the church reiterates the sacredness of life from natural conception until death, there is no ritual expression for a miscarried baby in the Order of Christian Burial. We adapted the vigil service for the funeral of an unbaptised child. The readings, the prayers and the litany have a rich depth of meaning. All life, no matter how tiny and unformed, is precious in God’s sight.

The parents brought their miscarried child to church in a small ceremonial box adorned with flowers and a teddybear. They placed their child on a small table before the altar and the Easter candle and we prayed. They could not name their child but they wanted to honour the child’s life before God.

This was a very small funeral – the parents and their younger child, the paternal grandparents, the funeral director and me. There was no hearse, only the funeral director’s car. After the service the parents handed their small child to him. Before the service the funeral director wanted to know how the parents would give their small child into his care. His professional and sensitive question was important.

At the end of the service we prayed the moving words of our Catholic funeral liturgy: May the angels lead you into paradise. May the martyrs come to welcome you and take you to the holy city, the new and eternal Jerusalem.

The questions and the emotions behind one grandmother’s phonecall to me were powerful. She had the experience of a miscarriage and so she knew something of her daughter-in-law’s and son’s plight. And so she sought information and, thoughtfully, passed this on. After the simple committal service, the father said,
‘The readings and the words were very comforting. It was exactly what we needed.
‘Not only did it provide some closure for us but, more importantly, this respected the life of our baby.’

Respectful burial
He also added an immensely poignant comment. ‘We know that there is very limited advice for people in our situation … we could put “it” in the rubbish or down the toilet. We did find that “it” could be buried.’ His mother’s questions, the advice of the bioethic’s centre and the help of an experienced local funeral director helped us to respect the life of this baby.

Both the Nathaniel Centre and an experienced funeral director believe that there is deep wisdom in a simple committal service followed by burial or cremation. A stillborn or miscarried baby can be buried in a family plot, in a designated children’s or stillborn section of a local cemetery. The funeral director to whom the family turned does not charge for his professional advice and services; grieving parents are charged only for a casket (where this is needed) and for burial or cremation fees.

A grandmother’s question, the urgent need of young parents and the advice of Fr Michael McCabe and John Kleinsman of the Nathaniel Centre and a local funeral director helped me, in the words of the father of this small miscarried child, ‘to respect the life of our baby’.

The writer has asked to remain anonymous to respect the confidentiality of the family.