Are burial rituals vital for stillborn and newborns?

Wednesday, April 27th, 2022 00:00 | By

What would have been a joyful moment for Sheila Nanzayi turned out to be the most heartbreaking moment in her life. She had gone to hospital while in labour and couldn’t wait to meet her baby.

She didn’t expect her pregnancy, labour and delivery journey to end with a lifeless baby.

“I thought that my unborn child was healthy and ready to meet me. I remember him being so playful, especially at night and I could on several occasions boast about how wonderful motherhood would be,” she recalls.

However, by the time labour pains began, she had low foetal heart rate, but she thought the baby was just tired and all would be okay. But as fate could have it, her son was delivered a stillborn. 

“After birth, I didn’t stay at the hospital for long because I had a vaginal delivery. I was then given the option of leaving the body at the hospital or burying it myself. I opted for the family burial, I just wanted him close to his family even though we never got to spend time with him,” she says.

The funeral arrangements were done by close family and within a week they were ready to take the body home for a proper send-off.

“It didn’t cost as much because we didn’t want so many people involved. My husband and I got a small coffin and hired a hearse to help us transport the body to our home in Turbo where we rested our little angel,” she recalls.

Two options

Many wondered why she had to bury a stillborn, but Sheila didn’t want to leave her blood in unknown hands and land. 

This was the same question raised when a new mum decided to have a fundraiser in various social platforms to facilitate the burial and transportation of her newborn from Mombasa to Bungoma. Is it reasonable to go through all that trouble to bury a child you have never met?

And for those who opt to leave the responsibility of burying stillborns and infants to the hospital, how exactly are their babies disposed?

Peter Mwangi a midwife at a local hospital shares that when a baby is born stillborn, or if it dies few days after delivery, probably before the mother is discharged from the hospital, they are given two options— to leave the responsibility of burying the baby to the hospital or take the remains. 

If you choose to take the remains, the arrangements that you choose to mark your baby’s death in the ceremony are personal.

You may have important religious wishes or cultural practices that you would like observed, or you may w ant a different type of non-religious event with poetry and singing. 

What happens at the ceremony is your decision. Some parents find comfort in making the funeral personal to them and their baby.

In cases where the family chooses to take the remains for burial, he says that families often follow the normal procedures of burial like that of an adult. This means that the body will be taken to a funeral home and let to rest there while the family plans for a funeral.

“Some people prefer giving their child a decent send-off due to the attachment they might be having with the baby and in this case, the hospitals do not have any objections,” he says.

The other method of saying goodbye is by letting the hospital handle the disposal of the baby. 

“After delivery the baby may be wrapped and kept in a box and placed by your side - you are allowed to spend personal time with the baby. You can always choose to do what you want-either pray, sing, take photos or even talk to it,” he says.

For a mother who has undergone caesarean delivery, the hospital will monitor her for close to 72 hours, but for a vaginal delivery they can be discharged immediately. Mwangi says that hospitals may arrange counselling to help the parents deal with grief.

One has to sign certificate of burial or cremation. 

“After the parents have signed the certificate of burial or cremation, the baby will be taken to a public morgue as burial arrangements are made since the hospital may have several cases to deal with. The remains can also be incinerated, but that is for hospitals to decide,” he says. 

He says public hospitals do not charge fee for this. However, private hospitals may charge small fee to transport the body to the morgue.

Nixon Omondi, a graveyard digger at Lang’ata cemetery says one may not have the choice of burial if you choose to have a hospital funeral.

If there is a burial option available, it may be in a shared grave. Some parents are comforted by the thought that their baby is not alone. If your baby is in a shared grave, you will not have the option of a headstone.

“If you lose a baby after 24 weeks since conception, they are entitled to a burial. The hospital will often place the babies in boxes and have them buried in a shared grave. The graves are not paid for since it is public space. But it will be difficult to trace the graveyard since it is not marked,” he explains.

 Dr Geofrey Wango, a psychologist at the University of Nairobi says it is hard mourning a stillbirth, especially if you had announced the pregnancy on social media.

“It is a double tragedy. Even as you deal with child loss, you have to answer questions from people who knew about your pregnancy, but not the death of the baby. This is psychologically tormenting for the mother,” he says.

For one, the woman also has a lot of questions: Why me? What did I do or didn’t do? There are a lot of expectations if you are newly married. 

“Again, let us look at it from the perspective of a woman who got such a child late in life. Or someone who has been trying to have a baby for years. It is not easy to just accept that the child is no more,” he says.

Because dealing with the grief alone might be difficult, the expert recommends seeking help from professionals or joining a support group to help one walk the journey. 

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