Catholic Cemeteries provide for unborn

The Rachel Mourning and Holy Innocents sections at Holy Cross Cemetery in Avondale offer memorials for the young and unborn. (Ambria Hammel/CATHOLIC SUN)

To his mother and father, Adrian was their fifth child, their third who they hoped would live with them on earth. To the rest of the family and the cemetery that buried him, he was a baby.

To the doctor’s office, the 4-and-a-half-inch boy who died in the womb was “a product of conception.” So, even though Bridgette Cosentino’s doctor always respected her opinion, he was against the idea of allowing her to take her unborn baby home for a proper burial.

Most babies who die in utero, like Adrian, don’t make it out of the hospital.

“They become biohazard, are tossed out with trash,” said Abbi Garavet with Elizabeth Ministry International, a peer outreach focused on the dignity of human life.

Parents make it clearly known to hospital staff that they intend to bury their unborn child. Elizabeth Ministry’s Life and Loss Institute trains pastoral ministers and hospital staff to reach out to grieving families during this difficult time, something that’s becoming more common, she said.

Cosentino didn’t know with her first two miscarriages in her mid 20s that burying her unborn children was an option. When she was about five months along with Adrian, Cosentino found herself in the emergency room following “a strange kind of pain going on.” Her son had died.

“I was overwhelmed with the grief to be walking around with a baby inside me who had died,” she said.

A doctor gave her three options: to allow the baby to be pulled out in pieces, to naturally pass through her system or to induce labor to have Cosentino deliver the baby. She saw the latter as her only option.

“The value of life doesn’t grow with age. The value of life is at conception. It’s inalienable,” she said.

She was about 19 or 20 weeks into her pregnancy, although doctors said Adrian stopped developing around 12 weeks. Babies at that uterine age have “a human profile,” according to the Mayo Clinic and can suck their thumbs, move their heads and mouths, and yawn.

“You could see everything: eyelids, fingers, genitalia,” Cosentino recalled. “My husband and I sat in the hospital and grieved for an hour.”

The couple let their two older children, then 9 and 7 years old, hold their brother too.

“They really understood that this was a real baby,” she said.

Cosentino, a parishioner at Christ the King in Mesa, learned about the unborn memorial section at nearby Queen of Heaven Cemetery and Mortuary. Adrian, who was first brought to a different mortuary — the Catholic one didn’t open until years later — is now buried on that hillside.

“My baby received a very dignified burial which is something that the Church teaches,” Cosentino said.

Adrian even had a “onesie” type garment made out of gauze for the viewing. He was placed in a shoebox-sized casket.

Cosentino said having a Catholic funeral and burial helped others to share the grieving process. The psychological and painful effects of the miscarriage were largely her burden, but the burial let others share the emotional pain.

“Everyone understood what I was going through. Everybody in our family could see it was a baby and they grieved too,” she said.

The experience brought Cosentino and her husband, Stephen, closer to the faith. They went on to have three other kids — now 11, 9-and-a-half and 7 — then four more miscarriages. They all joined Adrian on that hillside at Queen of Heaven. She said it was important to show them the same respect they would for someone who died at 20, 60, 80 or 100.

“What a beautiful thing that Queen of Heaven provides that ministry,” Cosentino said.

All six Catholic cemeteries in the Diocese of Phoenix work with families who lose a child through miscarriage. It’s something they’re called to do. Burying the dead is a corporal work of mercy.

Life begins at conception and if it ends prior to birth, having a Catholic mortuary on-site makes their ministry that much easier, said Gary Brown, executive director of Catholic Cemeteries.

Elizabeth Ministry, headquartered in Wisconsin, is working more and more with other cemeteries to set aside an area for babies who died before birth. Garavet said that some cemeteries hadn’t thought of holding a service for the babies, but were willing if approached.

Other unborn babies only have cemetery staff present during their rite of committal. Some hospitals and labs deliver to the cemetery, according to Joe Fairlie, a family services counselor for Catholic Cemeteries. They receive a proper burial too. The most in a one-month delivery was 43 fetuses. Two months ago, Fairlie buried his Knights of Columbus rosary with an aborted fetus.

At Holy Cross Cemetery in Avondale, a Rachel Mourning Baby Section and Holy Innocents section also rest near each other. Too many gravesites display just one date of life followed by messages like: “We did not get to hold you, but you are in better arms now” from earlier this year.

Three gravesites dated in 2010 read: “Sueña con los angelitos (dream with the angels),” “Two children too perfect for this world” and “Although we never got to meet your face, you are missed and loved.”