Abi Pattenden of Freeman Brothers Funeral Directors
Freeman Brothers has been established in Sussex since 1855 and, as funeral directors, we are used to offering sensitive, professional support to people who are bereaved. Our staff at our offices in Horsham, Billingshurst, Crawley, and Hurstpierpoint are committed to helping people as much or as little as they need and offering a bespoke service tailored for the specific requirements of those we are caring for. Whether it is arranging the funeral in full or simply offering advice and guidance, we aim to be a source of assistance and help at every step of the way.
June is Sands Awareness Month, an annual event during which Sands, a Stillbirth and Neonatal Death Charity, raises awareness of the facts and impacts of stillbirths and neonatal deaths. Sands fundraises for research into the causes of these deaths, and to provide free-of-charge support to bereaved parents.
Abi Pattenden, Manager of Freeman Brothers, talks about this most difficult of topics and the support that bereaved parents, and others close to them, can receive when a stillbirth occurs, or a very young baby dies.
‘Stillbirth’ is in some ways a technical term because it relates to the gestation of the pregnancy when the event takes place. A stillbirth occurs when a baby which has reached at least 24 weeks’ gestation is not born alive. Before 24 weeks’ gestation, this is called a miscarriage. It is generally accepted that 24 weeks’ gestation is a cut-off point after which there can be an expectation that a baby who is born has a likelihood of survival. In fact, some babies born before 24 weeks’ gestation do survive (see, for example, this amazing story from Tommy’s, the pregnancy research charity, about a family whose daughter is ‘thriving’ in spite of being born at less than 23 weeks’ gestation). However, rules around what is considered a stillbirth, are still demarcated by this time limit.
According to the Office for National Statistics, there were just under four stillbirths for every 1000 total births in the UK in the first three quarters of 2020. Stillbirths are gradually decreasing, but, according to the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, rates of stillbirths vary across the UK.
When a baby is stillborn (as opposed to miscarried), his or her body must be buried or cremated. While this can still happen earlier at any gestation, it is after 24 weeks that it becomes compulsory. There are various ways that this can be arranged, including allowing the hospital to carry out the process for you. This is especially a good idea for people who feel overwhelmed by the idea of making decisions but should be considered carefully, as it is likely that there will be few opportunities to be involved in what subsequently takes place. You can also arrange the burial or cremation yourself, with or without a funeral director’s help, and with or without a funeral service.
Whoever organises the funeral will be given a certificate, signed by a midwife, to confirm that the baby was stillborn and when. At this point, the baby will be referred to as being ‘born of (mother’s name)’ rather than having his or her own name, although if one is chosen it can be used- alternatively, he or she can be called ‘Baby (mother’s surname) for identification purposes.
It is worth noting here that a baby born alive at any gestation who then subsequently dies- even if he or she is only alive for a few moments- is treated like any other living person when they die and so the death has to be registered, and therefore death certificates, instead of a midwife’s certificate, are issued.
It’s understandable that there is often a lot of uncertainty about what a funeral for a baby or young child ‘should’ look like. This is particularly true for people who view the funeral as an opportunity to talk about the person who has died and their achievements over time. I feel that funerals have significant value for those who are grieving, though, which will not be discounted by having to do something different if the circumstances dictate.
Like any funeral, there are no rights or wrongs when it comes to what to do- although many religious denominations will have standard practices for their adherents to follow. Most funerals include music, and many include readings, a chance to share thoughts or memories and a time to reflect, and all of these are appropriate if they are wanted. It may, however, be harder to make choices. Those arranging a funeral for someone who has died after a longer life, their preferences can be taken into account.
There are plenty of options for music. Some parents play music to their babies in the womb and it may be that he or she had had a particular reaction to a piece or style of music which could be acknowledged. There are many songs which might feel appropriate, including family favourites, and lots of beautiful non-vocal music too. Listening to music as a shared experience can be very cathartic. Equally, readings and poems about death, grief and being bereaved are available in huge quantities, but there are online resources where you can find poems about any topic if you search.
It might be hard to think of sharing memories about a baby and expressing thoughts about his or her death might just feel too much. But there will have been hopes for the baby before he or she sadly died, and plans put in place, and acknowledging these- which can be as simple as giving him or her their planned name for their funeral- might feel like the right thing to do.
There are also numerous other ways to make a funeral personal. Many companies make bespoke coffins for babies and children. Articles can be placed in the coffin and baby can be dressed or wrapped in something chosen for him or her. Footprints and handprints can be taken, either on paper or in impression, and these can later be used to make jewellery and other keepsakes. If the funeral is a cremation, there will be the cremated remains (albeit possibly a small amount) which can be interred, kept, or turned into commemorative items in the same way that all ashes can. If the baby is buried (or if his or her ashes are interred), there is the opportunity to mark the plot with a headstone and the prospect of future burials in the same space.
There is no doubt that many people feel the death of a baby is one of the hardest things we ever might experience. As has been stressed above, there is no right or wrong, but it is important to sensitively explore what feels right for each individual, in the hope of acknowledging that there was a life which has unfortunately ended. More importantly than anything else, there is lots of help and guidance available from charities such as Sands, and we would always encourage anyone bereaved to seek the help that they need from resources like this.
If this post has affected you, you can receive help via Sands’ website.