Laugh, Cry, Live

Pondering the emotional side of life, beginning to end.

Providing After-Death Care at Home When a Baby Dies

Bereaved parents find it meaningful to take their baby home until burial.

Up until about 150 years ago, death in America was a family affair. People typically died at home or in the field. When possible, the family or clan would collect and take care of their loved one’s body by washing it, dressing it, sometimes photographing it, and often laying it out for visitation by mourners. Then, in the latter half of the 1800’s, the new profession of “undertaking” came along. Soon it became customary for families to hand over their deceased loved one to a funeral home.

But nowadays, more and more families are reclaiming the tradition of providing after-death care in the home. This “home funeral” trend arises partly from our population becoming increasingly diverse and open to different customs, and partly due to consumer advocacy exposing the downsides to the funeral industry, including expense, toxic chemicals, and unnecessary practices. For bereaved parents, particularly when a baby dies, providing after death care in the home can be a welcome alternative to relinquishing the baby to the morgue.

And yet, what about germs, decomposing bodies, the law, and the emotional wellbeing of the bereaved?

These are all valid concerns. So let’s look at the facts.

Dead bodies are not dangerous. It is exceptionally unusual for a dead body to carry a highly contagious, highly dangerous disease, so quarantine is rarely necessary to protect grieving loved ones. Especially in babies who die, dangerous diseases are rare or nonexistent, and common infections hold insignificant risk. Furthermore, when a baby is stillborn, the baby will have the same microorganisms as the mother. And if the baby dies of an infection after birth, the parents are the source or have already been exposed due to close contact. The dead body does not produce new germs, and while proliferation of existing germs occurs more rapidly when the body isn’t kept cool, this still poses an insignificant risk to parents.

Embalming fluids do not offer superior preservation, and embalming is rarely required by law. Modern formaldehyde-based embalming essentially fills a body with poisonous chemicals that retard decomposition and allow rendering the corpse more “lifelike” during viewing. This now popular practice was developed during the American Civil War, to make it possible to transport dead soldiers back to their hometowns. However, embalming does not preserve the body any better than refrigeration or even low-tech cooling with ice packs or dry ice. Embalming in fact hinders the natural drying out of soft tissues, ultimately leading to mold and bacteria growth. Indeed, some religions, including Judaism and Islam, forbid its use and many people are currently questioning its necessity, cost, and environmental effects.

Families are qualified to provide after-death care. With simple instructions, parents can bathe their baby’s body and keep it clean and dry. Keeping the body cool is easily accomplished, especially with a CuddleCot. We trust parents to take care of live newborns. Surely we can trust them here.

It is legal for families to care for their deadParents can transport their baby’s body and keep it in their home. In preparation for a “green burial” or cremation, they can wrap the body simply in a shroud or use a simple wooden box. Requirements vary between states and between cemeteries, but hospital staff and funeral directors can assist parents in obtaining the necessary permits and finding green burial grounds should that suit their desires.

Parents can benefit from spending a prolonged period of time with their baby after death. After childbirth, parents are psychologically and biologically primed to bond with and nurture their newborn. Even after a death, parents wanting to be with their baby is a natural expression of their postpartum drives and parental devotion. As a result, spending time with the baby’s body can offer a number of therapeutic benefits over the course of several days or longer.

  • Spending time with their baby allows parents to say hello before saying goodbye, easing the transition from “We’re having a baby!” to “Our baby died.”
  • Saying hello gives parents the opportunity to become acquainted with their baby, rendering this child more real. It also reassures them about the normal aspects of their baby’s appearance, offers memories of love, and grants opportunities to gather keepsakes and integrate the baby into their family—all of which can ease emotional suffering.
  • In becoming acquainted, parents can express their love to their baby in the tangible ways that parents do naturally, such as examining the body, admiring adorable features, noticing family resemblances, bathing, dressing, and sleeping with their little one.
  • Providing the special care their baby needs, parents can feel a sense of competence and authority, counteracting the failure and helplessness that parents typically feel when a baby dies.
  • Having the gift of time allows parents to find their way to doing what is most meaningful for them, and to revel in this time without feeling rushed and unsure.
  • Having the gift of time also allows parents to recover somewhat from the shock of their baby’s death, a traumatic delivery, pain-killing drugs, or exhaustion, ensuring that their memories of this time aren’t just a hazy fog.
  • When parents set the pace for spending time with their baby, they get to gradually say their hellos and goodbyes, and determine for themselves when to part with their baby’s physical body. Some parents report that they feel like they got to witness the soul's leave-taking, another reassuring experience. Setting their own pace, rather than having the hospital staff, morgue, or funeral home set the pace, also offers parents a sense of control, which can minimize the trauma of letting go.
  • Having their baby for an extended period enables parents to invite family and friends to meet and welcome their little one. This ritual enables them to cultivate shared memories and surround themselves with support.

Parents can benefit from bringing their baby home. For many parents, relinquishing their baby to the hospital morgue is agonizing. As they yearn to nurture their little one, they may regret their baby’s sequestration or be haunted by images of their baby lying alone in the cold dark. For some parents, relinquishing their baby to a stranger from the funeral home can be disconcerting as well. In contrast, bringing their baby home until burial or cremation removes that agony and regret, and offers parents a deepened sense of parental identity. Parents get the profound satisfaction of immersing themselves in protecting, nurturing, and tending to their baby at home, thereby answering an imperative call of nature. They can experience the soothing balm of holding their baby whenever they want, welcoming friends and family to their home to meet their baby, hosting a celebration of life, and taking their baby outside to feel closer to the natural world. These are all potentially healing rituals that can avert a feeling of unfinished business, instead allowing parents to proceed as parents and see things through to a more fulfilling conclusion.

Emotional expression of grief is painful but also natural and necessary, as moving through grief is how parents move toward healing. And yes, parents will experience profound sadness during the time they spend with their baby. But they will also experience profound sadness in the absence of their baby. And being able to cry with their baby in their arms is a comfort, which makes the letting go more gradual and a little less wrenching. As Vanessa Gorman tearfully explains in her documentary Losing Layla, "It was very beautiful having her body every day... I felt like that was a chance to be a mother, even though she was dead. You know, just to hold her, hold her bundle." (Watch powerful clips here.)

Medical care is constantly improving to accommodate new evidence about what benefits patients and families. Throughout the middle decades of the last century, deceased babies were taken away quickly by hospital staff in order to shield parents from the painful reality of their baby's brief life and death. But this practice did more harm than good. As a result, since the late 1970’s the standard of care has changed in graduated steps, from showing the baby to the parents, to letting the parents hold their baby, to guiding parents in providing after-death care themselves in the hospital, including bathing and dressing their little one. We've also begun to examine standards in other parts of the world, as in New Zealand and Australia, where parents have always been expected to bring their babies home after death. So now, in the U.S., doctors, nurses, and funeral directors are increasingly accommodating parents who wish to take their baby home until burial or cremation.

For clear affirmation of this practice, let’s hear from more parents.

Elizabeth Heineman, in her memoir Ghostbelly (2014), describes her transformative experience when Mike, the funeral director, nonchalantly suggested that she take her baby Thor home. 

I gaped at him. I had thought I would never see Thor again when we’d left the hospital. I was almost as grateful as if Mike had told us he could bring Thor back to life . . .

No one bothers to tell grieving families their options. Unless you discover the home funeral movement, which we didn’t. Unless Mike is your funeral director, which he was.

“Shoot, take him home if you want!” Mike said. “Take him overnight, spend some time with him. Maybe you have some friends who’d like to visit with him? It’ll be fine, just keep him in a room that’s cool.”

Our bedroom, I thought, my head spinning. We always turn down the heat there during the day, to save energy. And at night the whole house is cool anyway. But of course that wasn’t the point. Our bedroom was where Thor was supposed to have slept with us, where I was supposed to have nursed him. Where we were supposed to have said hello.

This was when I understood: Thor was our baby. He did not belong to the hospital. He did not belong to the funeral home. He was ours.

Mel Scott, author of After Finley (2011), describes her motherly impulse to spend time with her baby and the benefits of facing the stark reality, first in the hospital, then at home.

I had an instinctive need to hold him and look after him and I just had to allow myself to do it. I vaguely remember someone asking if I wanted him put in the morgue. I couldn’t even consider it. Part of me, deep down, knew our time was limited. And I wanted every second of it.

Finley’s shape fit into the crook of my arm perfectly. Even now at night I can feel the weight of him there. I remember thinking how lucky I was to be able to sleep with my baby in bed with me. Sometimes when I moved him, his nose would bleed, and I would wipe it with a wet wipe. The bleeding was a sign that Finley’s body was starting to break down, but for me it was a chance to care for my baby.

In the hospital, I felt like Finley was still with his body. But now his body is dead, and Finley is gone. You can see it—I need to see it. First in the funeral home. Now here, in his own cot.

 

Nicola Daly, a New Zealander who wrote the book, Sasha’s Legacy: A Guide to Funerals for Babies (2005), confirms the value of ritual when providing after-death care.

Sasha Felix spent the next five days at home with us, tucked up in his drawer, surrounded by soft toys and blankets and many colorful bunches of flowers. He was read to and sung to and held by all his close family. We took hand and foot prints and more pictures. We showed him the night sky full of stars and even took him down to the beach in the early morning to dab salty water on his forehead. Sasha’s father wrote his name in the sand, a kind of naming ceremony for him. Each night we took his drawer up beside our bed with us, and each night we lit candles all around the house for him. And then on the sixth day we took him up to Hamilton to bury him.

 

Finally, a mother who has informed my own writing about after-death care in my most recent books, A Gift of Time (2011) and Stillbirth, Yet Still Born (2014) offers a detailed picture of providing after-death care to her newborn son. She describes the decision, the logistics, the supportive reactions of others, how they spent their time, the value of integrating him into their family this way, and following the lead of their young daughter, who approached the entire situation with equanimity.

We learned three weeks before our baby was born that he was not expected to live very long. We had never really faced death before, but the second we heard the term ‘home funeral’ we knew that whatever that was, it was probably going to be right for us. We couldn’t imagine letting him spend the time after his death in a mortuary. Plus we felt strongly that our baby belonged with his parents. 

We had a small basket that we could carry everywhere we went and we used this as a bed for him. We were able to keep some dry ice under the pillows in his basket to keep his body cooled. That, and being gentle when we held him, was really all that was involved in caring for him after he died. We used the same diapers we had bought to use for him had he lived. He wore his regular baby clothes. That was it. There was just nothing gruesome or even messy about caring for him after he died. This was the baby we were given, and we just did what he needed. It was a very straightforward and logical choice for us.

We weren’t sure, though, how other people would react to our decision to care for him after his death. No one we knew had done anything similar and we wondered if people would be judgmental or critical of our plans. However, absolutely every single person we have ever talked to about it has been not only understanding, but also very supportive! We tell them, "Hey, this was all the time we were given with him. We didn’t want to waste it!" and they all seem to really understand that.

Those days he was with us were amazing. It is actually hard to describe it adequately with words. Obviously there were times at which we felt extremely sad because we couldn’t keep him forever. But when we remembered to just "stay in the moment" with him, it was beautiful. We had time to give him a couple of baths, time to let him wear a few different outfits, time to hold him and love him and memorize every detail of how he looked. We had time for countless photographs. We had time for a big party to celebrate his arrival and introduce him to friends and family, and we were able to do that in our own home instead of a funeral parlor. It was so much more enjoyable for everyone. We genuinely had a great time! 

Perhaps most significantly, keeping our son with us after his death gave our three-year-old daughter time to really get to know her brother. The bond she feels for him is profound, and we can’t imagine having chosen to try to shelter her from experiencing him. In fact, everyone learned a lot about how to handle his death from her. She didn’t love him any differently after his death than she had before, and this provided a beautiful example to everyone who saw it. It was the ultimate reminder to be grateful for what we were given—a precious son who remains perfect to us, even though he didn’t live very long.

During that time, our daughter also served as a constant reminder to simply enjoy our son every moment he was with us. We are so grateful for this experience and all the vivid memories we will always have of the time we spent together as a family. That time was absolutely priceless to us. We cannot imagine having passed it up, under any circumstances.

Deborah L. Davis, Ph.D., is a developmental psychologist and author of 6 books, including one about perinatal hospice titled A Gift of Time.

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