Mary Beth Durkee of Troy recalls the funeral of her stillborn son, John Gerard, with a sadness tempered by time.
There was a little white casket and a small ceremony in the garage at St. Joseph’s Cemetery in Troy, held there because the ground was already starting to freeze.
It was 1976, a year when stillborn babies were talked about in hushed tones, if at all.
“The doctor had said nothing to me about having it buried or anything like that. It was just, ‘Nature takes its course, blah, blah, blah,’ and that’s it,” Durkee recalled.
Her husband suggested she “just let it go,” but she said she couldn’t. Her mother told her she was making it harder on her husband by insisting on a formal burial, but she explained that she was haunted by the idea of what would otherwise happen to the body of her tiny son.
“I just said, ‘I want my baby’s body back,’ so they had to go and recover it from wherever they were disposing of him,” she recalled.
When a second son, Daniel Patrick, was stillborn in 1979, Durkee insisted on a similar burial.
“It took me quite a while to recover from all of it because I had a couple of girlfriends who were pregnant at the same time, so to this day — their kids are all raised and they’re young men now, and here are my little guys laying in the cemetery,” she said.
But knowing her children were properly buried gave her closure, she said.
For generations, women who gave birth to stillborn children were routinely denied that comfort.
“What I’m aware of is that years ago when babies died, mothers were usually so medicated out and then they just thought it would be too difficult to tell the mothers what took place, so the babies just disappeared,” said Susan Daly, funeral director at Daly Funeral Home in Schenectady.
Husbands were regularly left with the task of making arrangements for the child’s burial and encouraged never to talk about it.
Daly’s grandfather started Daly Funeral Home in 1930 but never spoke about how stillborn infants were buried in the early years, Daly said. Legal requirements now dictate that families contact a funeral home if a baby is stillborn, starting at 21 weeks’ gestation, she said.
Today, medical professionals and grief counselors encourage families to acknowledge and honor the lives of those children.
In acknowledgement of parents who never were given that opportunity, Most Holy Redeemer Cemetery in Niskayuna has created a Remembrance Garden — the first of its kind in the country, according to Maureen McGuinness, family services manager at the cemetery.
In the garden, a bronze statue of a mourning woman kneels on a wall made from rust-colored stones that were reclaimed during a renovation of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Albany. A picturesque pond lies beyond.
In front of the wall is a patio made from bricks that can each be inscribed with the name of a child who was stillborn or died soon after birth. Bronze butterflies, personalized in a similar manner, will grace the stone wall.
The garden will be dedicated during a Service of Remembrance at 2 p.m. Thursday.
McGuinness said she receives frequent calls at the cemetery from people wanting to find babies who died at birth.
“Some of the women say, ‘I don’t know if it was a stillborn or if the baby lived a little while and then died,’ ” she recounted. “They carried this baby for nine months, they were looking forward to bringing home a baby and wake up from being sedated and are told, ‘There is no baby; we’ve taken care of it.’ ”
In a remote spot in Most Holy Redeemer Cemetery is a 20-foot-by-20-foot plot bordering forestland where between 1951 and 1973 more than 400 infants were buried in unmarked graves.
In 1991, a gray granite marker bearing the words “Let the Children Come to Me” was erected at the heavily wooded back edge of the site. Hidden on the back of the stone is an engraved list of some of the infants who may have been buried there. Below each name is a single date: Francis Peter Norman Searles — Nov. 28, 1955; Mary Carol Kernaghan — Dec. 18, 1953; Susan Elizabeth Koehne — Dec. 1, 1965.
McGuinness said the stillborn infants may have been wrapped in a blanket or in plastic for burial. Sometimes they were placed in a box or a tiny coffin with hinges, she said.
Funeral director Kathleen Sanvidge of Townley & Wheeler Funeral Home in Ballston Lake helped a woman in her 80s search for the final resting places of her three stillborn babies.
“She stumbled upon a receipt for the burial of a baby boy, and that was simply all it said,” Sanvidge recalled. “Her husband had died, so she had nowhere to turn to find these babies.”
After some searching, Sanvidge discovered that the babies were buried at Most Holy Redeemer Cemetery. She said the mother was thrilled with the discovery and pleased to hear about the new memorial garden at the cemetery.
A greater understanding of the grieving process and the bonding that occurs between parents and an unborn child has led to changes in the way stillborn infants are regarded. At Albany Medical Center, nurses encourage parents to hold their stillborn child and spend time with them. The staff works with nonprofit organizations to provide outfits, knit blankets and hats for the babies, and parents also receive memory boxes, photos, footprints, foot molds and locks of hair, when possible.
“We try to build some memories for these parents because they won’t be able to bring their baby home, and so these are the only things they’ll really have in their possession to remember their baby,” said Julie Washington, an assistant nurse manager in Albany Med’s labor and delivery department.
Holding and acknowledging the baby helps with the grieving process, Washington noted.
“It’s the very, very beginning of a very long road they have ahead of them, but we try our best to put them on that road with some memories they can hold on to,” she said.
Professional photographer Michele Calderon of Scotia is a volunteer with the Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep program, which provides families of stillborn infants and those at risk of dying as newborns with free portraits of their babies.
“It shows that their baby was a real baby, part of their life,” Calderon said. “Even if they know that [the pictures are] tucked in the drawer and they may not take them out for a long time, there’s just a comfort in knowing that they’re there and that that baby is not going to be forgotten.”
Acknowledging and celebrating a stillborn child’s life is important, said Maryanne Malecki, executive director of Haven of Schenectady, a bereavement support center. If the child’s existence is ignored, it can create lead to anger, distrust and blame, she said.
“It’s this idea that you haven’t validated the existence of this, you haven’t validated the experience, you haven’t validated the potential joy and then the devastation,” she explained.
Malecki suggested memorializing the child by planting a garden, commemorative tree or rose bush. Becoming involved in an organization that deals with the issue of stillborn births and helping others who have experienced a similar loss can also be therapeutic, she said.
Daly Funeral Home is called on to see to the final arrangements for about 12 infants each year. Daly said the services are quiet affairs at which family members gather for prayer and perhaps a viewing.