Why Some Parents Want to Take Home Their Deceased Baby
Reclaiming an old tradition that soothes grief and comforts bereaved parents.
Posted May 18, 2022 | Reviewed by Gary Drevitch
- Taking care of our dead in the home is a longstanding tradition in many parts of the world.
- When a baby dies, parents can benefit enormously from taking their baby home until burial or cremation.
- It is legally permitted to care for our dead loved ones at home until disposition; a home burial may be legal in your region.
"When our baby died, we wanted to take his body and bury him ourselves. No one at the hospital knew what to do." – Catherine Ashe ("Bringing James Home," Slate)
After childbirth, parents are psychologically and biologically primed to be nurturing and attentive to their newborn. These hard-wired instincts do not disappear when a baby dies. When given the right support, bereaved parents can benefit from spending prolonged periods of time with their baby, and the desire to take their baby home is a natural expression of this postpartum drive and devotion.
You may have never heard of this practice, but it’s a longstanding tradition in many parts of the world. Birth and death have always happened in the home—until, just during the last century in certain parts of the world, hospitals became the place to go. But as more people return to traditional ways and choose to be at home during these momentous occasions, the idea of returning a body to the home, and even having the funeral there, is becoming more widely accepted again.
For bereaved parents who only have a short window of time to spend with a baby who died during pregnancy, birth, or infancy, this option makes a lot of sense. 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, as they orient from “Our baby was born!” to “Our baby died.”
- Saying hello gives parents the opportunity to become acquainted with their baby, affirming this child's life and importance. It also reassures them about the normal aspects of their baby’s appearance, creates memories of love, and grants opportunities to gather keepsakes and integrate the baby into their family—all of which can ease emotional suffering.
- As parents express their love to their baby in the tangible ways that parents naturally do, they learn to become a special kind of parent to a special kind of baby. This enables them to develop their parental identity with this child, which facilitates mourning this child's death. Parents can benefit from examining the body, admiring adorable features, noticing family resemblances, bathing, dressing, sleeping with their little one, and doing whatever else they find meaningful.
- 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 this gift of time allows parents to find their way into doing what is most meaningful for them, including formal rituals and informal or spontaneous moments of ritual, and to revel in this time without feeling rushed and unsure.
- Having this 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, and that the experience was reassuring. Setting their own pace, rather than having the hospital staff, morgue, or funeral home determine it, also offers parents a sense of control, which can minimize regrets and avert the trauma of letting go too soon.
- Having their baby with them for an extended period enables parents to invite family and friends to meet and welcome their little one. This sharing can enable them to cultivate shared memories and surround themselves with support.
For a clear affirmation of this practice, listen to the words of parents, as they describe what it's like to take their babies home.
Elizabeth Heineman, in her memoir Ghostbelly (2014), describes a transformative experience when Mike, her 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.
Catherine Ashe, whose baby died in the hospital at 5 months, buried her child at home in North Carolina, which is legally permitted there. In Bringing James Home, she writes:
Surely I could not be the first mother to walk away, to wish to bury her child at home? And yet it seems that I was.
That night, I laid in bed and tried to sleep. My son was nestled in his bed adjoining ours, as he had always been.
Does that sound morbid? I thought so too once. As if somehow, in death, our children suddenly become something else—something frightening or unnatural. As it turns out, they are still our children. They are still the fingers and toes that we have lovingly counted and kissed. They are still the tiny embodiments of our hopes and dreams. Living or dead makes no difference. They are still part of us.
Yes, parents will experience profound sadness during the time they spend with their baby. But they would also experience profound sadness in the absence of their baby. Nestled in at home, they also get to experience contentment. plus memories they'll always cherish. Being able to cry with their baby in their arms is also a comfort, which makes the letting go more gradual and is certainly less wrenching than surrendering the baby to a morgue or funeral home. 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."