Mourners Lay Unclaimed Infants and Fetuses to Rest

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c. 2007 Religion News Service

NEW ORLEANS _ By the side of a grave in Metairie Cemetery, Lise Naccari bowed her head, held her husband’s hand and let herself grieve.

Hers was a subdued grief, a polite grief. Her eyes were moist, but she held her composure as the priest intoned a blessing that should, at a funeral with four tiny caskets, have been cause for unruly emotion.

“Lord God, ever caring and gentle,” said the Rev. Joseph Cazenavette, “we commit to your love these little ones who brought joy to the lives of those of us here for so short a time.”

A short time, indeed.

Naccari was mourning the demise of three fetuses recovered from the New Orleans sewer system and of one stillborn infant that was delivered at a downtown hospital and abandoned there by its mother.

As she stepped forward to give her eulogy, she acknowledged that the mourners were a crowd of strangers who knew nothing about the fetuses or the parents who lost them.

“Today we have done something that a mother and a father should have done,” she said.

Naccari is a homemaker and occasional religion teacher who has taken a core Roman Catholic belief _ the right to life _ and extrapolated from it the unusual practice of burying even the smallest wisps of human existence.

The bodies she claims are unwanted. She usually hears about them on news reports and calls the coroners in New Orleans and Jefferson Parish about claiming them if family members don’t.

M.A. Goldman, a forensic investigator at the Jefferson Parish coroner’s office, said he is grateful that Naccari conducts the funerals. Without them, the remains would end up in a mass grave.

“A pauper’s burial is a very undignified way to be buried,” Goldman said.

Among the eight bodies Naccari has interred since 2003, only the first was the product of an abortion. The others include the three flushed down the city sewer system, possibly the result of miscarriages; the unclaimed stillborn; a premature baby recovered from a Dumpster; and two full-term infants killed by their mothers shortly after birth.

“I just feel like this is human life. These are human beings, and they don’t belong in the trash. They don’t belong in the sewer,” Naccari said.

She and a small group of like-minded people attend to the quixotic task of sewing burial gowns, building caskets and bestowing names on the tiny bodies that would otherwise be buried, unmarked, in a potter’s field.

As Naccari and two dozen supporters made their way to the cemetery Wednesday (June 20) from St. Edward the Confessor Church, four tiny wooden coffins waited by a full-sized grave, suitable for one adult or as many as nine tiny corpses.

One of the caskets was smaller than the others, the body inside smaller than the palm of an adult’s hand.

Knights of Columbus in full regalia flanked the grave and raised their swords in tribute as a guitarist and trumpet player led the audience in hymns.

Mourners clutched roses that they tossed on the miniature caskets at the end of the ceremony.

Naccari began these burials as a way of mourning the death of her mother in 2002 and the loss, many years before, of a child to miscarriage.

For her, the graveside ceremonies are an act of storytelling, of giving truncated lives a small narrative arc. She gives them names or asks friends to do so.

The four bodies interred this week have the last name Boudreaux, after the Covington couple, Donald and Judy Boudreaux, who donated the cemetery plot.

“Maybe all the ritual of what I’m doing here is an act of love, a way of saying, `I acknowledge your presence in this world _ that you were here, you were a human being, you were created by God,”’ Naccari said.

Naccari said her funeral efforts are not political theater or a new tactic in the anti-abortion movement. If she is trying to spread any sort of political message, she said, it is awareness of the state’s safe haven law, which allows women to give up their babies at hospitals or fire stations without fear of prosecution.

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At least two other groups, one in California and one in Missouri, hold burials for infants abandoned by their parents. But Thomas Long, a professor of preaching at Candler School of Theology at Emory University, said he believes the practice is rare.

He sees Naccari’s efforts as part of a growing practice in hospitals of helping parents grieve the loss of a child that a woman had expected to carry to term. If a woman had a miscarriage or a still birth several decades ago, the hospital probably would incinerate the remains immediately.

“Over the last 30 years, many hospital chaplains have developed homemade rituals and worship services for stillborns or miscarriages,” Long said. “There have even been some burial services for amputated limbs.”

KRE/PH/LF END MORAN

(Kate Moran writes for The Times-Picayune in New Orleans.)

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