This week, two stories in the news demonstrated why how we treat the remains of children who die before birth matters so much to their families.

In the North, Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey announced the launch of a new Child Funeral Fund which provides “a one-off lump sum payment of £3,056 to help towards the cost of a basic funeral in the event of the death of a child under the age of 18, and stillborn babies born after 24 weeks of pregnancy.” (This scheme mirrors the terms of the Children’s Funeral Fund in England.)

The inclusion of families who lose their babies late in the pregnancy is, of course, to be welcomed. However, many who lose babies earlier than that, they will still wish to have a proper burial or interral of ashes. A funeral and an opportunity to inter their child’s remains in the way that is most respectful and meaningful to them as a family can be hugely important to the grieving process. We all know those who have lost someone who find visiting a grave or returning to a location where ashes were scattered an important form of remembrance.

Many parents who lose their children before 24 weeks will have had the opportunity to hold them in hospital and ideally have services such as Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep Ireland to record any photos and memories they wish. When it is obvious how meaningful and important those opportunities can be to families, it makes no sense not to facilitate parents through the next steps of organising a proper funeral and having the comfort of knowing their child’s body was respectfully interred in the way they choose.

There does not appear to be any similar dedicated fund in the Republic – pushing for one to be implemented would seem like a great pro-life policy proposal that pro-choice people could get on board with.

Sadly, another story from this week demonstrated just how hurtful and demeaning disrespectful treatment of children who die before birth is to their families. Laura and Fintan Kelleher spoke out about their daughter Hope, who was stillborn in Cork University Hospital on 3 November 2019. They consented to a post-mortem and further tests on Hope’s organs after which those remains were to be buried in the hospital’s graveyard. However, mortuary staff at the hospital became aware in early 2020 that there was no more room at the burial plot and Hope’s organs, along with those of 18 other babies, were sent away for incineration in Antwerp in March and April 2020.

They only became aware Hope was one of the babies affected when, while watching a Prime Time documentary on the issue, they spotted the date of her postmortem on a document shown on the programme.

Our little Hope’s organs had been incinerated and inhumanly disposed of like rubbish.

Laura and Fintan Kelleher

They, and the other families affected, are still waiting for the release of a report into the issue and a protest is planned outside the hospital on June 11.

Losing a child is such a painful experience that those of us who haven’t experienced it personally can shy away from thinking or talking about it. The idea of picking out a tiny coffin or arranging a funeral for your baby is so deeply harrowing that it can be tempting to just make the whole issue taboo, something to be whispered about or ignored whenever possible. But unless we actually grapple with what families going through these situtations need and how we can support them, dehumanising practices like that exposed at Cork University Maternity Hospital – which somehow still happened despite repeated similar scandals in Ireland and abroad – will continue.