In the soft light under sheltering oaks, 6-year-old Janna Grace Mole lifted her voice to sing along with her grandparents’ refrains of Jesus Loves Me as the remains of more than 100 late-term miscarriages, stillborn and infants who never took a breath outside of a hospital were introduced to their final resting place.
On a recent Saturday, Duharts Baptist Church kept a pledge it started around 14 years ago to welcome two-years worth of abandoned remains from University Hospital in a special service into its rural cemetery.
This is the fourth time the church outside Louisville has held the service. Pastor Tim Pendrey said it began not long after he started work as a part-time chaplain at University.
He said he noticed several paper bags containing smaller plastic containers of what appeared to be ashes in the hospital chaplains’ office.
“There were just bags and bags and I asked and they told me we don’t have anything to do with them,” Pendrey said. “I knew something needed to happen. I thought, ‘We need to take care of this.’ And so I got to looking around and there was no place. I still don’t know how other hospitals handle it.”
He said when there is a fetal demise, be it a miscarriage, prebirth or post-birth death in the hospital, the family generally has three options. The first is a traditional service. Many times, he said, funeral homes offer a cremation at cost and the family is presented with the ashes. Then, there are times when families have no way of financially arranging services of any kind, much less the expenses associated with burial. That is when the hospital offers what it calls disposition.
“What happens is one of the funeral homes picks up the remains once a quarter, twice a year, something like that, they cremate them and then bring the ashes back to the hospital,” Pendrey said.
He had just begun to pastor Duharts, the Jefferson County church where his grandparents are buried. He asked his congregation for a space in the cemetery that has graves dating back to the early 1800s.
“It goes back to scripture where God was talking to Moses and he asked God, ‘What can I do?’ And God asked him, ‘Well, what do you have in your hand?’ We’re a small congregation and at that time we didn’t run but about six people on Sunday, but we have property. What can we do with it? This is what we had in our hand.”
And so it began. Now, every few years, Pendrey takes the unclaimed remains that are returned to the hospital chaplains’ office and provides a service, burial and marker in the cradle of live oak and cedar trees behind the church.
“I think everyone should have a right to a dignified resting place and service,” Pendrey said. “That’s what we provide.”
Sometimes parents of the deceased attend the services, but often it is attended only by the families of church members who stand around the graves who sing and pray.
“When I started I said I only want one stipulation to be buried here and that’s no stipulations,” Pendrey said. “This is for the babies and the grieving families. The first year there was four years worth.”
Even before the recent ceremony, he said there must be close to 500 individuals from the hospital put to rest already.
Chaplains are no strangers to death. It is their job to be there when it occurs, to offer counseling, a hand, a shoulder, a word, something stable to grasp when the crush of grief threatens to smother every light.
“This baby was dying,” Pendrey recalled one such moment. “It was a full-term baby, but it was dying and the mother came in the NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit) and she said she wanted someone to hold the baby but she couldn’t do it. So I just sat there and held and stroked that baby until it passed in my arms. She just couldn’t emotionally handle it herself.”
He has many similar stories as raw and splintered as a chest full of shattered glass.
“It’s horrible,” Pendrey said. “We had one just the other day where they knew there wasn’t a heartbeat and the baby was dead, but the mother had to go through the whole birthing process to deliver. It’s just so traumatic on everybody. I can’t imagine then having to go home and take my nursery down. I have a degree in psychology and I deal with grief as a hospital chaplain, but I just cannot imagine the grief some of these families are facing. This is a closure.”
At a time when nothing makes sense and nothing can really make anything better, Pendrey said that now being able to tell families that there is a beautiful, tranquil place out in the country where their child can be put to rest is something of a comfort.
“There’s a sense of release,” he said.
He was contacted once by the mother of a child who was a part of Duhart’s second such service.
“She had no idea where her baby was and she called the hospital,” Pendrey said. “We talked and I asked her what year. She told me and I said yes, I could show her exactly where her baby was buried. We met here and she just cried and cried and cried. She said that all these years she thought they had just thrown her baby away. Undoubtedly she has been back because every now and then we find little keepsakes left on the grave.”
Pendrey believes that this is why he was called to serve at Duharts and prays it continues to provide this service well after he is gone.