Forced arrangements for fetal remains: anything but dignified

Ohio is attempting to introduce legislation that would require abortion clinics to incinerate or bury products of conception from abortion. This legislation is already in place in Arkansas and Indiana. These laws are supposed to afford human tissue a “respectful and proper” end as lawmakers were apparently horrified that products of conception were disposed of as medical waste.

Medical waste is not an offensive term. When we call an amputated leg medical waste we don’t mean that that leg was somehow unimportant to the person or that it was disrespected by the surgeon or pathologist, it is  simply a descriptor that a biohazard threat exists and appropriate safe disposal is required. Different tissue and body fluids pose different biohazard risks and hospitals and clinics have to make sure that risk is dealt with appropriately. 

As investigation after investigation into Planned Parenthood has turned up nothing illegal some lawmakers needing to deliver something punitive regarding abortion and making sure the term “body parts” was included have decided to focus on the “dignity” of tissue and that “dignity” can only be preserved with burial or cremation.

Let me tell you about my experience with the “dignity” of forced fetal remains arrangements. 

In 2003 I was pregnant with triplets, ruptured my membranes at 22 1/2 weeks, and 36 hours later my first son Aidan was born and died minutes later. 

A day or two after delivery, while I was still feeling like I was on Mars courtesy of an intravenous medication called magnesium sulfate to try and stop my contractions, a woman came to visit asking what I wanted to do with Aidan’s body?

Right his body. I had a son. He died.

I couldn’t focus on anything because of medication side effects and my emotional state, but apparently I had to focus on this. Now. Rules and paperwork and such. Who knew the practicalities of death had a timeline? 

“Could I just keep him in the morgue…until I know what will happen to his brothers?” I asked. The only thing I knew what that I had to to keep the boys as together as possible until they all delivered.

What do you say when you have to barter to keep your one pound dead child’s body in the hospital? Thanks ever so much?

How people absolutely devoid of empathy and sympathy and kindness get the jobs that most require them is unknown to me, but if ever there was an example this was it.

About a week later at 24 weeks and still in a precarious situation medically and sleep deprived from medication given every four hours to stop my increasing contractions Dead Body Lady called me up. I had to decide what to do with Aidan’s body. Today. If I didn’t he would be shipped off to some county grave that sounded right out of Tess of the d’Urbervilles. 

Apparently Dead Body Lady had paperwork that needed to be finished in so many days by law so my son needed to be cleared out. In my own hospital I could not even be afforded the kindness to keep a one pound body in the morgue’s freezer for what would be (if I were lucky) a few more weeks.

I sobbed as if the earth had opened up and swallowed everything good. Then I started contracting. I could barely get the story out to my secretary between heaves of my chest. She fixed everything and I am sure Dead Body Lady got in a lot of trouble, but likely she had seniority so nothing really happened and I am sure she is still treating devastated women who are haunted forever by the pain she inflicts and the click of her cloven hooves on the tiled floor.

I delivered at 26 weeks due to an infection. Four days later while I was very ill with sepsis (an infection in my blood stream) some other administrator with an equal amount of empathy dropped of a packet with the names of funeral homes with convenient stars beside the ones that offered free cremation for stillborns and newborn deaths. So alone in my hospital room between drenching sweats and Richter scale shaking chills I did research on funeral homes and the merits and pricing of burial versus cremation.

I was asked if I had a plot, as if choosing a graveyard and picking the right spot for burial go hand in hand with painting the nursery and assembling the crib.

“Oh honey, do you like the arctic white or the lily white for the nursery walls? And the back up headstone, should that be white marble to stick with the theme? And should we get a plot or just hope for the best and use grandma’s in a pinch?”

What circle of hell was this?

Cremation seemed like the safest bet. Yes, I cremated my son because I had a short externally imposed timeline and it seemed like the most cost conscious option that provided the greatest flexibility lest I have one or two more dead babies in the next couple of weeks. Not quite my definition of dignity.

The funeral home called me about two weeks later to let me know it was done. I got the call on my cell in the intensive care nursery standing next to Oliver and Victor who were doing very poorly. I’d been discharged from the hospital three days earlier.

My then husband drove the two of us to the funeral home. It was decorated in early Addams family. That actually made me laugh, which helped a lot considering what came next. We sat in a waiting room resplendent in dark velvet waiting for what seemed like a long time. I cracked a joke about them losing his body. It was then that I noticed the open book on the table with all the “options” for his ashes. Mostly fancy (and expensive) urns (engraving extra, of course) and lockets to keep a bit of him with me always. You could choose several in case you wanted to divide the ashes up among loved ones. What a nice bait and switch to call your cremation free then hit grieving parents up when they are at their most vulnerable.

“No thanks we’ll take the cheapest urn you have. If you don’t have a cheap or free one I’ll take a box.” I said barely containing my anger.

Maybe some hospitals do it better and maybe some funeral homes really do offer free cremation to grieving mothers, but I doubt my experience is unique and just imagine what it will be like when there are thousands of miscarriages to process in addition to previable deliveries and stillbirths. Abortion clinics will pass on the cost to their patients (clearly the intent), but what about hospitals? Now women recovering from a miscarriage or previable delivery will have some administrative lackey hunt them down to sign a form for the remains and they will be on a timeline. Hospital paper pushers with an administrative deadline don’t always care about your grief or how sick you are. 

Some women may have already elected to have a burial or cremation, but others don’t want to do that. Many will be stunned, as I was, and not able to process it all. Might some hospitals pressure women to make their own arrangements to avoid a hospital cremation fee? After all cremation is more expensive than processing medical waste. Some women who don’t feel an emotional connection may feel guilted into doing something. Some may make decisions they later regret because they were too sick to think straight or felt pressured.

I have no memory of Aidan alive all I have is the absolute horror show of dealing with his remains, which plays over and over again in my head at inconvenient times. I do not wish that on anyone. If I could do it all again I would have nothing to do with the disposal of his body and let the hospital decide and tell me nothing about it, that’s how bad it was.

If your pregnancy was wanted then you should get to deal with the physical remains of your tragedy in your own way, but requiring cremation or burial, paperwork, and a timeline under the guise of “dignity” is a joke. 

My son’s ashes are sitting in an urn that looks like it was from the scratch and dent bin at Bed, Bath and Beyond and it’s tucked in the back of my closet. I simply don’t have it in me to do anything else. I’d like the people who passed these laws and those considering them to explain to me exactly how the administrative process that got me to this point displayed “dignity” for human remains and how a discount urn on a shelf is a more “respectful and proper” resting place than any other. 

Join the Conversation


  1. Jen, this was an excellent post. I’m so sorry for the experience you had. I work in medical communications and try so hard to make patient and doctor materials better, but more often than not, the real issue is always the sensitivity of those in the hospital with the patients. It’s such a problem and there’s no quick solution. Thank you for sharing your experience with your readers – I’m always interested in your opinion on matters such as these and this was a really insightful read. I only hope it is better for the mothers after you.

  2. Wow, this is terrible. It’s bringing up all sorts of weird emotions about my abortion. In Sweden it’s completely legal and hardly shameful, so I just booked an appointment, got the pills and went home. A few days later a tiny, see-through thing came out when I was in the shower (I was only about 8 weeks), so I just… flushed it down the toilet. I thought about keeping it or doing something with it, it felt weird odd just throwing it away, but I didn’t want it. I can’t even imagine going through it with a wanted baby. That must’ve been terrible.

  3. Hi there. Sad to read your horrible experience. I cannot even imagine how you must have felt. I have lost 2 grandsons and know how sad, let alone surreal it all feels. We had two funerals. Cremations. And even though I have grown up in a funeral business with a father who was a funeral director, I was heartbroken. Death, something we KNOW meets us all one day, but we still don’t know how to handle it. I feel for you and send you much love and good luck with everything that comes your way!

  4. Losing a child is very difficult and dealing with burial or cremation is also not easy, so to expect either to be easy would not be relevant. I am not really sure of the intent of this post but as a practicing catholic I can tell you that it is somewhat easier if you have an affiliation with a church, priest etc to help aid in these decisions. Most humans do not prepare or want to think about tragedies let alone prepare, but from my experience having a strong faith and having those around you that can help in situations like this is certainly a vital tool in the grieving process. In any case a fetus or a delivered baby should be treated with the same respect as any other human life and the burial process is an important step in the grieving process. Thanks for sharing

  5. I’m so sorry that you had to go through such a needlessly awful experience on top of the pain of losing your son, Aidan.

    Sadly these are the stories that need to be told to get through to those responsible for arbitrary targets that there is a human cost to their decisions.

    Thanks for sharing your story.

  6. I cannot begin to imagine how you felt at that time. Or even still at this time. Where did all the bedside manner go? I’m so sorry for your experience and if nothing else I hope that someone else finds comfort in knowing they aren’t the only ones who have had an experience like this and I truly hope that something gets done so that more grieving parents needn’t go though this in the future.

  7. As a mother of triplets, who was hospitalized at 22 weeks…I know the reality of this horrible tragedy. I was able to keep my triplets in while on hospital bed rest but the possibility lingered in the air every second. We took it hour by hour, day by day, week by week. The lack of empathy from some hospital professionals is beyond me. I am so very sorry for your loss and am very curious about Oliver and Victor! RIP Baby Aidan and hugs to you fellow triplet mom!

  8. Im sincerely sorry for your loss. But I dont think what you ask of the health care system is very realistic. Most of the people do care. But for them the best way to show it is to do their job very well. check the temperature, change the bedpans, make sure the iv is going make sure the medication is going and blah blah blah. In the middle of all this reporting to your senior paperwork the list of things to do is endless. the show of empathy can get lost in all this mundane everyday wok, which is nevertheless vital. There may be genuinely apathetic people but I personally dont think there are many of them.

  9. Not at all what you went through, but I recently had two miscarriages, and had similar thoughts. At which point is it OK to just flush, and when do you actually reach in and find what is left of a fetus? And thank god I want through it at home and didn’t have someone telling me what I had to do, but only because I was only 11 weeks along…a few more weeks and I would have been at the mercy of hospital staff, I’m sure.

  10. I am so sorry for what you went through, and can’t imagine having gotten that far along, and then having to stay positive for your other two while grieving for the one who didn’t survive. Thank you for sharing your story, and showing the hidden experience that so many go through that many of us never hear about.

  11. It’s kind of telling that the only push-back you’re getting from your post is from men.

    My sincere condolences on the loss of your son — who was obviously wanted. Thanks for shining a light on all of this.

  12. It’s terrible that you had to go through this in regards to your son. Sympathy and empathy are definitely lacking, in this area. Its so much to process and go through, physically and emotionally. And pencil pushers dont help either. What we need is compassion for the grieving. I feel your pain here after losing a child ourselves. I find myself envying one mother who has her child’s ashes, but only because i lost ours in a toilet at a gas station with the auto flush feature. It happened so fast I had no time to react. the next day I endured terrible pain and what seemed like rather uncaring hospital staff trying to convince me i had lost nothing. no big deal right? They’re lack of care like those in your situation make things so much worse. The mother’s (and father’s) deserve some sort of closure as they are able to see fit, when they are able. And the child given value other than just the title of medical waste for the sake of disposal. There should be care for both of which you have sadly seen the worst of. I feel your pain. Not many people really know how to deal with death in any degree and the last thing anyone needs is a pile of paper work. Thank you for sharing your experience. This can be no easy thing. It never is.

  13. Wow – absolutely awful! No one should have to go through what you did and it sounds as if the laws regarding cremation verses medical waste will open the door for even more people to experience the hell you did. I am sorry for your loss and the horrifying way the entire process went down.

  14. I grieve for you, and also dealt with the same hastiness to make a decision regarding Avery Corinne’s remains before I’d even endured 79 hours of labor. It’s business as usual for many hospitals and their staff. My only solace was one nurse who’d also lost her baby a couple of years prior. God bless you. God bless Aidan.

  15. I had no idea such laws were being put into place; this is news to me. Of course, I’m so sorry you had to deal with such a disgusting (for lack of a better word) hospital staff member. Thank you for sharing your perspective; it was eye opening.

  16. Jen- you are not alone. I was treated exactly the same way following my daughter’s death during delivery from a cord accident. The nurses were compassionate but the people who made the arrangements to either dispose of her tiny body or bury/cremate her were devoid of any human emotion. It was 23 years ago and I’m still struggling with her death. Things aren’t much better in 2015. My daughter was a person. She deserved better. I deserved better. I’m sorry for your loss.

  17. First off I know your pain in more ways than one. His comfort to you and yours as Healing is the ultimate soother. As He heals broken hearts with the balm of Gilead in time. For His healing is like no other. Just know you are never alone as He’s always been right there. All you have to do is cry out to Him. He is the God of answer we just have to inquire of the Lord. In time I hope and pray better days are just over the horizon for you. I know its hard to see now but on the other side of your pain you’ll be stronger and better than every before. Thank you for sharing apart of your story to shed light on a topic many don’t know is a problem.

  18. First, I would just like to say kudos to you for having the courage to write such and insightful post. Secondly, I completely agree with you, no grieving mother (or family for that matter) should ever be pressured into deciding what should be done with their loss, this is a matter that requires a lot of thought and time. These are the stories that need to be heard.

  19. This is no different from what my brother and I experienced when our mother passed away at 79. The only difference, the funeral home was a modern community center mall of services (complete with a food-banquet area). She also showed us all their ashes jewelry and asked if we wanted to see the ovens… I guess the purpose of all of this is to steel us to how awful these intrusions will be on our hearts at a most difficult time. We all need to be prepared to be advocates for ourselves. I am sad that your hospital treated you this way. Each subsequent day that you go in to work must make you acutely aware how Not to be.

  20. my little sister passed away not to long ago,she had trysommy 18,wich means that she has three cromesons on her 18 one
    and a hole in her heart
    we had 56 min with her and that was all

  21. What a heart wrenching, but well written read!! Thank you for sharing what must have been a terribly hard and personal time in your life, sorry for your loss and what you had to go through

    Lisa xoxo

  22. this is shocking! and this powerful account of what you had to endure deserves a wider audience. my heart is sore for you, Jen. i hope justice is found and laws are changed. administration before empathy. it is disgusting how you were treated, and possibly many others as you say. i hope you find peace through all of this. i know it cannot be easy and that you must have some really dark days. much love, and light, and thank you for sharing.

  23. State laws usually have a dividing line of when burial is required vs when it’s medical waste: 20 weeks, or 500 grams or born with a heart beat-even for a few seconds.
    The hospital where I work , unless a family wants a funeral under that cutoff – works with a funeral home who takes all the fetus’ under the cutoff and cremates them twice a year, has a graveside service if the parents want to come and buries all the ashes with one headstone.
    So a place the parents can visit if they want. Over the cutoff- most funeral homes around here will cremate or bury for very low cost, as a service to the parents.

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