By Steven Rice
And whoso shall receive one such little child in my name receiveth me. Take heed that ye despise not one of these little ones; for I say unto you, that in heaven their angels do always behold the face of my Father which is in heaven. —Matthew 18:10, included in the Burial of a Child, 1928 Book of Common Prayer
Like most priests, I know the Burial Office by heart. In my relatively short 13 years as a priest, I’ve become familiar with death and the various and sometimes tragic ways we face it. I’ve buried a 90-year-old woman who died shortly after I baptized her in the hospital. I’ve buried someone who was murdered and then I’ve visited the murderer in jail, since both were parishioners. I’ve buried a victim of opioid abuse and another from suicide. I’ve buried my grandmother and my mother. None of these, however, compares to the intensity of burying a child. However long God gives me on this earth, I will never forget what it feels like to commend the soul of a two-year-old to him, to snip a lock of hair for his parents, and to place him in the ground in “sure and certain hope” of resurrection (1979 BCP, p. 501).
All are precious in the sight of God; of this there is no debate. Yet there is an undeniable wounding of the heart at the death of a child. It is a wound that bleeds for the vulnerability of children who depend on the help and protection of adults. While they rest in the blessedness of heaven, we grieve for experiences they will never have. The moment the death of a child no longer punctures our heart is the moment we cease to feel. The moment we cease to feel is the moment we give up.
Two years ago, on a muggy October afternoon, my heart was punctured twice. The first wound came from a text message that simply read, “We’ve lost the baby.” Two dear friends had been trying to conceive for months and were met with miscarriage after miscarriage. The experience was harrowing. The mother had to shop around for an affordable dilation and curettage. There was no burial. There were no pastoral resources to speak of, other than well-meaning folk reminding them that they could try again, all of which seemed to at best ignore, or worst deny that this baby was a human being, made in the image and likeness of God and represents, par excellence, “the least of these” (Matt. 25:40). Surely if the Church is serious about the vulnerable and the outcast, if we are serious about those on the margins — in limbo — then we must care about these babies. The moment we cease to feel is the moment we’ve abandoned hope.
The second wound came from an article about the gospel work that Holy Innocents’ Church does for children who died from violence in the Atlanta area. Holy Innocents provides burial services at the municipal cemetery and provides spaces in its columbarium for these children.
Convicted and inspired by grieving parents with no place to lay their children and children who often had no one to lay them down, I spoke to a neonatal ICU nurse in my parish. She then introduced me to the neonatal and perinatal palliative care coordinator at both of our local hospitals. The need was greater than I imagined. Children die in the hospital with parents who have little or no resources to give them a proper burial. Children die and no one wants to take them home. Children who die under 23 weeks gestation are discarded as “human tissue.” This is an injustice.
Justice, according to Aquinas, belongs to religion. As a virtue, justice gives someone what is due. Since religion approaches nearest to God through due worship, it is the highest of all moral virtues. Following Aquinas, Richard Hooker wrote: “So natural is the union of Religion with Justice, that we may boldly deem there is neither, where both are not” (Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, 5.1). We can only truly combat injustice in the world with the gentle weapons of religion.
With this information, in 2016 on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, the Society of St. Joseph of Arimathea was conceived. Taking the example of St. Joseph (Matt. 27:60), my parish pledged to give up our tomb, metaphorically speaking. Working with a local funeral home, we pay for the cremation of babies and children for families who cannot. For babies who are unclaimed in the hospital, we have made a perpetual claim. For all who need a grave, we have opened our grounds. The model is simple and, we trust, easily replicated.
I have found that hospitals and funeral homes are eager to partner in this work. Nurses, doctors, and other hospital personnel often feel helpless and without resources in helping poor families navigate the uncertain waters that come with the death of a child. They are often constrained by hospital policy and law and are overjoyed to see a dignified and holy path for these precious, and often forgotten, children. In 18 months we’ve helped 11 families. We are establishing a national shrine for all children who have died, whether from illness, violence, miscarriage, abortion, or accident. The shrine will not only provide a place for burial, but also a place of prayer and devotion.
Last July the Bishop of Burnley, Philip North, told the New Wine Conference in England:
We are all trying massively hard to renew the Church. We are working like crazy, we are praying like mad, we are trying every new idea under the sun. Yet the longed-for renewal does not seem to come. In fact decline just seems to speed up. Why? Why are we struggling so much? I want to suggest that the answer is quite a straightforward one. It’s because we have forgotten the poor.
As an Anglo-Catholic, I romanticize and fantasize about serving as a slum priest in East London in the 1860s. The reality is that I don’t. Yes, my parish runs a homeless shelter four months a year, but we must bus in our guests. I agree with Bishop Philip: We have forgotten the poor, but how can we change this? Where can we meet the poorest among us to love and serve Christ in them?
The meeting place is death. Death provides access to everyone, rich and poor. The Preacher pulls no punches: “All go to one place; all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again” (Eccles. 3:20). Through the Society of St. Joseph of Arimathea, I have been granted instant access to places and with people that might otherwise perceive me with great suspicion. I have also discovered that by caring for the dead, we see differently those we might have perceived with great suspicion. Once we learn to pray for and care for the dead, we’ll start praying and caring for the living. When we feel for the dead, we’ll fight for the living.
Months ago, I was in a meeting with hospital chaplains, social workers, and the director of the morgue. One of the decedent affairs officers started to share a story about a child who was delivered at 23 weeks. His mother refused to see him and did not want him. As she was telling this story, I realized I had heard this story before. One of my partners had called asking if I would claim a child the funeral home had cremated but could not keep.
When I mentioned this, the officer smiled through tears and said, “You have Jeremiah.”
“Jeremiah? That’s his name?”
She answered, “Not legally, but that’s what we named him.”
“Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you,” I said.
She smiled again, “Exactly.”
When we feel, there is hope.
The Rev. Dr. Steven Rice is rector of St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church, Winston-Salem.