By Steve Rice
Since 2016, I have buried 317 children. I use the 1928 Book of Common Prayer because it contains a liturgy for the Burial of a Child that is rooted in the traditional votive mass for the Holy Guardian Angels (which was traditionally said for children in place of a requiem). I prefer the 1928 rite also because it does not address the name of the child, which is good because of the 317 I’ve buried, I’ve known the names of 10.
The Society of St. Joseph of Arimathea, the ministry charged with these burials, began after conversations with a friend who was unable to carry a child to full-term. I would receive an excited phone call or a text with the news that she was pregnant, only to receive news of miscarriage and melancholy weeks later. It was awful to hear how this young couple (her husband was in seminary at the time) had to shop around for the most affordable D & C (dilation and curettage) and had no real options for burial. They suffered in silence and it seemed the church was ill-equipped and unprepared to address their grief over losing a child.
In the same month I read an article about an extraordinary outreach provided by Fr. Joshua Case when he was at Holy Innocent’s Church in Atlanta. Working with local government, he was burying children who died by violence. It seemed like everywhere, children were forgotten and I wondered what the need was in my own community of Winston-Salem, North Carolina. From those questions and subsequent conversations, my parish created the Society of St. Joseph of Arimathea, pledging to cover the cost of cremation for needy families who’ve lost children. In 2019, we opened our own cemetery. In total, we’ve helped 403 children have a dignified burial.
I believe life begins at conception and therefore I believe these children, whether they are called fetuses or products of conception are human beings, made in the image and likeness of God. I don’t attend protests and I don’t march with signs and slogans. I try to avoid any interaction on social media that is contentious. I prefer my witness to be channeled through the prayer of the Church:
O merciful Father, whose face the angels of thy little ones do always behold in heaven; Grant us steadfastly to believe that this thy child hath been taken into the safe keeping of thine eternal love; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
As I write this essay on a Monday morning, I have received two calls to cover the cost of cremation for children. One was 22 weeks and one 38 weeks. One wishes to be buried in the cemetery and one will remain the custody of the parents. I don’t always know the story; in fact I rarely do. Sometimes I am able to speak to the mother and listen to her story. Most of the time I only have a piece of paper from the hospital. From those pages, I have learned much — about anencephaly, or that Trisomy 21 is the medical term for Down Syndrome. While I can guess, I do not know how these children died, meaning I do not know if it was an abortion that was spontaneous (medical term for miscarriage) or one that was scheduled. Not knowing has helped me focus on the burial instead of blame.
As a man, I’ve never had morning sickness. I’ve never felt a human being kick against my stomach. I’ve never felt the pains of labor. And while I’ve known the joy of seeing my own three children enter this world, I’ve never had the same connection as their mother, who kept them alive for 40 weeks. Likewise, I’ve never felt the fear, pain, and isolation of losing a child. I don’t know what it’s like to hear that the child I’m carrying has “multiple fetal anomalies” or other medical terms frequently printed on the pages I receive from the hospital. But as I place the container in the ground, one that is labeled “product of conception,” I know it is a child. I also know that on that same container is only one name — the mother. As we pray and think through the days after the Supreme Court ruling on Dobbs, we cannot separate the two.
At the heart of our Christian faith is a mother and child. At the feast of the Visitation, John leaps in the womb of his mother at the sound of Mary’s voice, the same voice that said “Be it done to me according to thy word” as she conceived by the Holy Spirit. The Book of Common Prayer has, over the years, commemorated both the conception of Jesus Christ on the Annunciation and the conception of the Virgin Mary. Even from the cross, our Lord extends the bond of mother and child, as he gives Mary and John to one another. When it comes to life, we cannot ignore the sanctity of the child’s life in the womb of his mother and we cannot ignore the sanctity of the mother’s life who carries the child. Why can’t we care for both? Is this not at the heart of what St. James called “religion that is pure and undefiled”?
I think this can be done. I am not naive to think it won’t be hard. There are serious obstacles and decades of ingrained distrust. When I say the prayers at the grave, I know that the people helping me are all over the political spectrum. The Society receives extraordinary support from the parish and the community, who have been very generous with their money and labor. A benefactor paid for the cemetery. A group of men digs the graves. A parishioner with a career in textiles makes shrouds for the burial boxes. When there is a burial, dozens of parishioners attend to give witness to lives that were perhaps never physically held, but are indeed loved, even by strangers. I know some vote Republican and some vote Democrat. Some identify as pro-life and others identify as pro-choice. Yet all intuitively understand that we are not burying mere clumps of cells. We also understand that these children often represent the hardest of cases, where there are no easy decisions and that there is real work that must be done to support mothers and families. Our common ground is found in prayer. Here, the voiceless, the least of these, are remembered even if they were never given a name. Here, the mothers with souls pierced with swords, are heard, even if their story has never been told.