In the emergency room at St. Bernards Medical Center in Jonesboro, a couple faced the death of another child, their third miscarriage. The pregnancy lasted a few weeks longer than the others.
“She had her hopes up. I’ve used her quote — she had that ‘entire baby’s life planned out.’ She already had boy and girl names picked,” said Dana Lands, director of the St. Bernards Birthcare Center. “The plans and hopes in her heart, that was just gone. She did want a way to memorialize that baby.”
To honor the sanctity of life and give peace to families who are grieving, St. Bernards Medical Center began an infant memorial program, burying babies who have died up to 12 weeks’ gestation at Holy Cross Cemetery. The burial is free to families. Funds for the burial program came through donations to the St. Bernards Development Foundation.
“Families are very grateful,” said Sister Maria Christi Cavanaugh, OSB, St. Bernards vice president of mission services and director of pastoral care. “… The mom has come in and had a miscarriage or D and C (dilation and curettage) in the ER. This was a life, this was a child that came into your life and that brings great relief, that brings great comfort and shows it was a human life” to have a burial.
Amid eight adult-size graves sits a large memorial stone. The stone includes a heart carved from red marble — hearkening the St. Bernard logo — with an angel embracing it, along with Jeremiah 5:1, chosen by chaplain Father Mike Sinkler.
“I wanted it to be a place where people could go. We’re physical people and we need a place to connect to, especially when we have an infant we never got to hold, carry and even see sometimes,” Father Sinkler said, who has been chaplain for 10 years. “… We talk about that we are pro-life and that we believe this is a child from the moment of conception. But we have not always had a real place for them to be buried and celebrate their life.”
A bench and corner markers are also onsite. The memorial stone was recently added, though the hospital first used the gravesite Aug. 29, 2018, burying 44 babies. There are currently 109 babies buried at the site, with 65 buried on Aug. 27, Lands said. Private burials, with a priest and some hospital staff, are planned quarterly.
Holy Cross Cemetery is owned and operated by Blessed Sacrament Church in Jonesboro.
In 2017, the Arkansas Legislature amended Act 168, defining a miscarriage as 12 weeks’ gestation or less, changing the previous definition of 20 weeks.
“Even if the law says they’re just a miscarriage at less than 12 weeks, we didn’t want to treat our patients in that same way. That sparked the whole concept,” Lands said.
The memorial program is part of the larger Perinatal Bereavement Program, which has been at St. Bernard for at least the past 15 years, but the hospital has always offered bereavement care for infant loss, including a variety of memorial items, emotional support and counseling, Lands said, who is a certified perinatal bereavement counselor.
For babies who die after 12 weeks’ gestation, the program helps families coordinate with local funeral homes and cemeteries that offer discounts for arrangements.
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