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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 dead bodies do not produce new germs. While proliferation of existing germs occurs more rapidly when the body isn’t kept cool, this still poses an insignificant risk.

Embalming fluids do not preserve bodies better than cooling, and are 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, whether or not parents have access to 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 dead at home.

Parents can transport their baby’s body and tend to their baby without time limits. 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 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, sleeping with their baby, 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.

    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.

    Bereaved parents are grateful-- and benefitting.

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