Praying for dead children

H/T: Lost Innocents (here)

A friend told me that after her daughter was stillborn a year ago she had trouble finding a priest to offer a memorial service for her. She wasn’t living in the wilds of Montana where there are very few Orthodox churches, she was living in New York in an area stuffed with priests. The priest who eventually did the service was reluctant. This struck me as unreasonable. Why would we not do a memorial service for a departed infant? The answer was, the baby was not baptized. Even though infants who die before birth have no need of baptism (explanation here) consider what a comfort for the grieving family a memorial service is. By not permitting any sort of memorial service to be done we would in essence be denying the existence of the infant.

There is an excellent article on this site (Touchstone Article) that addresses the question of how the Church ministers to miscarried and stillborn children and their families. The upshot is that work needs to be done. The situation I described above certainly illustrates that. You would think that the Church has never addressed the situation but that is not the case. Below is an excerpt from that article:

It is in the other aspect of ministering to pre-born death—services for the infant himself—where there is more room for improvement, or at least for clarification. There are no prescribed Orthodox services for a miscarried child: no funeral, no commemoration, no anniversary observances. This is because the unborn child is not baptized. Indeed, there is a school of thought that the pre-born dead cannot partake in the fullness of God’s kingdom for his departed, and therefore should not even be buried in the same part of the cemetery with the faithful.

    Thankfully, this custom—which has been condemned as “nothing less than barbaric” by Fr. Alexander Rentel, a professor of Orthodox canon law—is not universal and was not applied in our case. The funeral service for infants was read, with some modifications, over little Constantine. The monastic community at St Tikhon’s stepped in out of loving concern and conviction regarding the sacredness of all human life, and made room for Constantine among all the other Orthodox awaiting the resurrection in that place. The only distinguishing aspect of the pre-borns’ grave markers at St. Tikhon’s is that they bear only one date. Other monasteries exercise similar care over the pre-born dead.

    Some progress is being made toward addressing the perplexities of theology and custom that have inhibited pre-born funerals for the Orthodox. In March 2001, the Holy Synod of the Church of Greece set guidelines for burials of unbaptized babies, classifying children of Orthodox Christian families as “candidate members” of the church: “After the establishment of infant baptism, the unbaptized children of Christian parents occupy the place of catechumens.” And catechumens may receive a Christian burial in the Orthodox tradition. [emphasis mine]

This decision by the Greek synod may be a welcome step toward ending the situation in which, in the words of Fr. Peter Jon Gillquist, “children who die in the womb are among the only human beings . . . denied any place in the liturgical life of the church.” We look forward to the day when such precedents will spread across Orthodoxy and Christianity as a whole, and extend to the pre-born dead the full range of services for the dead.

“…unbaptized children of Christian parents occupy the place of catechumens.” Any Orthodox Christian knows that catechumens have their own special litany during every Liturgy. We even (with a special blessing from the bishop) have conducted memorial services in church for non-Orthodox family of members of our parish. It has been painful for me to hear catechumens commemorated when my own babies are not and to attend memorial services in church when my babies’ services were restricted to the graveside.

It would seem that while at least one local Church has made an official statement, there is still a gap to be filled by the rest of the Church*. To the best of my knowledge the topic of miscarriage and stillbirth is never brought up at seminary unless it is in passing by a priest who has experienced it personally. A seminarian remains ignorant on the subject and is ordained and sent out to a church not knowing what to do if a woman comes to him having lost a baby. Chances are he will have never thought about the matter until it is staring him in the face. Certainly, that was the case with the loss of our own son Innocent in April of 2011. My husband was at a loss, not knowing what was going on, not knowing what services would be appropriate, not knowing what to say to me. Mercifully, his spiritual father was able to provide comfort and a service we could do at the graveside, he himself having buried six of his own miscarried grandchildren.

We need to do a better job in seminaries of educating men on the subject of miscarriage and stillbirth. It would be unthinkable for them to graduate and be ordained having no idea what to do upon the death of a child or adult, but we leave them empty handed when it comes to the unborn. It is not only unfair to the priests, it is profoundly unfair to the faithful to whom they minister. I don’t know how many women have written me, telling me they went to their priests for solace, advice and services and were turned away or treated insensitively. In this day and age, when we can see unborn children when they are comprised of but a few cells, when we can perform surgery on them, when we know more about them than has ever been known, to ignore their plight and deny them the services of the church and to send their grieving parents away with empty words is absurd and wrong.

I don’t know where exactly to start with this – I am but a single matushka in the middle of nowhere (as far as the Orthodox church is concerned). But really, this has got to be improved. Surely we can do better than this.

*Matushka Euphemia has emailed me and pointed out that the Romanian Orthodox Church has made a similar statement which predates by many decades that by the Church of Greece. The original statement is in Romanian but below is a translation. This is a tremendously important statement. Note that it predates Communism in that country, the ecumenical movement, etc.

The most important source is the decision of the Romanian Orthodox Church Holy Synod of 5 May 1908. It says:

Also, regarding the address of the same Holy Metropolis, relative to the issue whether it is proper to have the religious service of burial of children who die before they are baptized as well as those who are born dead.  After the discussion which followed, the suggestion of H.E. the primate Metropolitan and H.E. the Metropolitan of Moldova to allow the priests to do the religious service for children born dead as well as those who die before being baptized, being children of Orthodox parents.

(Thanks to Fr. Peter Andronache for the translation!)

11 thoughts on “Praying for dead children

  1. And yet the infant in the womb is nourished by the Eucharist through the mother’s partaking of the precious Body and Blood.

  2. Thank you for this. I am hardly a raging feminist, but I do agree that it is problematic that the Church is eager to tell a woman that her unborn child is a human being when it is making rules to control her behavior, but if she loses that same child naturally and comes looking for comfort the Church basically shrugs and says “We’re not sure what to tell you about that.”

  3. Hi, Linda K. The issue with this post is very particularly who gets to participate and to what degree in certain Church services, not whether the unborn is a human being, whether abortion is murder, or whether stillborn babies find salvation. It reminds me of the question of whether non-Orthodox may take part in the Orthodox Eucharist (they may not): it is not a slight against the person, but it is an affirmation of what it means to be or not to be a member of the Church.

    Of course, for Orthodox parents, as the essay above lays out, this should never have to be an issue, since they are members of the Body of Christ and therefore, as the essay argues, confer that status to a substantial enough degree even upon their unborn or unbaptized infants. I can hardly imagine any likely scenario where someone who was not Orthodox and suffered the death of an unborn child would even try to get an Orthodox funeral for the child. This is really a situation that exclusively applies to Orthodox parents.

    Fr. Milovan is quite right in his comments that both within and without the services clerics and the Church on the whole must be better prepared to give love and intelligent guidance to grieving parents and anyone who loved a child who died. This could very well include more unusual situations.

    In any case, the Church’s position is not hypocrisy, as long as it does not claim condemnation of the infant, and it certainly does nothing of the sort.

  4. I had a son die at the fourth month of my pregnancy! My body did not release him, and I carried him for a week, knowing that he was dead! I ended up having to go to the hospital to deliver him. We were devastated! We called St. John Monastery in Ohio. They agreed to have a service, and to bury our son Seraphim, there. At the monastery, they actually did the infant funeral service. It was such a beautiful and comforting service. It brought so much peace to our hearts! Seraphim’s cross at his grave has only one date. I agree, that we seriously need to do something to help women who have miscarried or have had stillborn children. I know of so many women who have not had the blessing of “closure” that we had. We desperately need to be there to support & comfort these women. Lord help us!

  5. The church insists that the unborn life is sacred and vehemently teaches that abortion is murder. Then to deny or limit a funeral service for the unborn is hypocrisy. This must be addressed. Forgive me if I’m missing something.

  6. Evlogeite! This article ‘The death of infants’ is VERY good!!! By Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos “…holy Baptism we are not getting rid of guilt from ancestral sin, but we are being grafted on to the Body of Christ, the Church, and are acquiring the power to conquer death. This is how we understand the baptism of babies. We baptise them so that they may become members of the Church, members of the Body of Christ, that they may pass over death, overcome the garments of skin, decay and mortality. That is to say that as they grow, whenever the nous becomes darkened by passions and the darkness of the surroundings, they may have the ability to conquer death in Christ, to overcome the passions and to purify the noetic part of their souls once more.”

  7. I think it’s also good to remember the purpose of the funeral service here. While it is for the deceased, it is also to offer comfort to the living. We recall the three incidents it the gospels that Christ raised someone from the dead: Lazarus, the son of the widow and Nain and Jairus’ daughter. In each case He does it more so for the sake of the living than the deceased. On the other hand, I once asked my bishop what I could do because a man was cremated upon the wish of his son. The bishop said, Nothing, let them think about about the decision they made. The situation of the stillborn is difficult and very delicate and if anything the family – the mother in particular – needs to be comforted through prayer.

  8. I think that, as a matter of church economy, this theory of accepting the unbaptized infants as catechumens has a certain logic to it: that is, this is specifically about whether an Orthodox service should be offered for a departed soul, and therefore the question of Church membership is important. Although the article does not address the larger issue of all babies who die without baptism (which of course would include a vast majority who did not have Orthodox parents), I think it is at least a question that must inevitably cross the minds of many reading this. Whether the children are members, even at just the catechumenal stage, is the question for conducting the Orthodox service, but as for the state of the soul of any departed infant … well, we don’t need logical tricks* for that. I should brush up on St. Gregory of Nyssa. I know he had something to say about the larger issue without resorting, if memory serves, to arguments of church economy or membership.

    Good post. Thank you for putting it up and for the link.

    *And I don’t, by the way, pejorate the article by saying “tricks.” Nonetheless, there is something of the intellectual sleight of hand at work here. Surely a baby in the womb is not yet at the stage of learning much of anything about Orthodoxy in the way that would in normal and realistic thought be used to define a catechumen: even indeed a catechumen so young as, say, six months old, who would, despite his youth, actually be getting from good Orthodox parents regular exposure and habituation to (i.e. learning about) the Orthodox life. In any event, for purposes of conducting the service, I understand that allowing some way for the deceased infants to be members of the Church is necessary: as for the more sensitive matters of consolation outside of services and the question of whether unborn babies who die go to this place or that, we don’t really need to resort to such ideas.

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