How not to manage shared burials

This is the horrific tale of a family going to see the grave of their baby days after what should have been their baby son’s first birthday expecting to see this:

But being met with this:

What appears to have happened (as reported) is that the parents had asked the hospital to handle the burial arrangements and unknowingly gave consent for a shared burial.  Days after what should have been their son’s birthday the grave had been opened to bury another baby in the shared plot.  All of the families decorations and momentos had been cast aside and all that remained was a patch of earth marked with another baby’s name.

For those unfamiliar with the idea of shared burial it’s where hospitals bury babies together in a shared grave.

If you choose burial in a shared grave your baby will be buried with others in the same grave. Charter members are encouraged to locate these graves within the same Children’s section where private graves are situated. You will not have any rights or control over the grave however some parents take comfort from knowing that their baby is with others. Should you choose this option it should be noted that it will not be possible to reverse your decision and request an exhumation and reburial in a private grave as the consent of all parents of babies buried there would be required but could not be obtained.

Remember very often this is a decision bereaved parents are expected to make in that head spinning reason free time of grief.

“I signed this sheet but I don’t remember signing it. It does say on there about that it’s a shared grave which we didn’t remember about until they dug the document out.

“I don’t know what time because everything that day was just a blur.”

The hospital’s response is less than reassuring.

“We understand that the period during which Mrs Cox signed the consent for her baby to be buried in a shared plot was a very emotional time.

“In light of Mrs Cox’s experience, we have amended our consent form to include additional details about interments in shared graves that is printed in our support booklets, to make this information more prominent.”

This gloriously misses the point.  They gracefully acknowledge that after the death of a chiild it ‘may be an emotional time’ (may?!) but their answer to update the support booklet is woefully inadequete.

“I don’t know what time because everything that day was just a blur.”

It should not be up to the parents to read the fine print.  It should be part of a conversation treating parents as adults and talking to them rather than abdicating responsibility to a leaflet. None of this is an unreasonable request.  It’s part of the suggested guidelines.

The parent(s) should be given a choice about what happens to their baby. Parents
need to be informed clearly and sensitively, by trained hospital staff, about the
choices available to them. Burial/cremation authorities should discuss the range of
options they provide with their local hospitals. This choice shall be given to the
parents in an appropriate manner by trained hospital staff.

There is no going back on the decision once made so it is critical that parents fully understand what they are giving their consent.  Parents are putting their trust in the hospital to help them when they are not in a position to help theirselves.

‘This is a time of great sadness and trauma for the parents,’ says Erica Stewart of Sands, the only national charity that helps parents who have lost a baby at birth. ‘For some people it’s too much for them, too overwhelming, to organise the funeral themselves after perhaps delivering a dead baby, seeing, holding and dressing it, and saying goodbye.’

The council’s response is equally unsatisfying:

“In this situation parents are offered a public grave at a local cemetery at no cost. Parents are required to sign a consent form at the hospital to confirm that the internment will be in a shared grave.

“However, in light of this case, we are discussing with the hospital how information is provided to families in this situation, and we will also be looking at updating our own processes which could include notifying the hospital when we re-open a grave, so that they can contact the families concerned.”

The bit that really gets me about this response is the ‘could’.  If you know that you are going to open a grave marked as a shared one for babies you would have thought it a fairly basic expectation of human decency to let the families know.

The council’s airy claim that “the council works closely with the local hospital who offer the parents the option of a dignified burial or cremation.” ignores that the issue here is not that the burial was not dignified, it was the part afterwards.

As horrible as it is people should know if the burial they agreed to is not permanent. It’s one thing to know your baby will be buried with others it’s another to know that an existing grave or their grave in the future may be opened to bury more babies.

There seems to be a lack of understanding that for many bereaved parents this is all they will have.  The people responsible for clearing the grave would have seen the name, the balloons, the dates.  At the very least they could have collected the momentoes and decorations and allowed the parents to have them rather than leaving them to the mercies of the elements.

There is also the unaswered question of if it was known that this was a shared grave plot why did the cemetary allow a personal headstone to remain there for a year?

This horrible mismanagement compounds not only the grief of the family whose son’s grave has been dug up in such a callous fashion but for the family of the baby buried with him.

People deserve better than this.


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