“He has been dumped.”
Mrs. van Melsen tells me these words as we look down at the inscription on the monument at the graveyard near Sint Pieter’s church in the Dutch city of Maastricht that reads: “Silenced indeed, but never forgotten.”
And then Mrs. van Melsen tells me the story of the stillbirth of her eldest son, back in 1958. It all happened in a Catholic hospital in Maastricht.
“My husband could not handle it, that is why he never wanted to talk about it. They had put him on the counter, all naked, covered in blood. A nun came to him and said: ‘We have saved your wife and that is your child.’ That’s what my husband told me. I have never seen nor touched my boy because I was still recovering from surgery. You did not dare ask, I was twenty-two years old, my husband twenty-seven. And that was it. My husband went home and returned with a little white coffin, but I do not know how they put him in the coffin. Was he still naked? Did they dress him … these thoughts, they haunt me nowadays. I am eighty-two years old. My husband died four years ago. Whenever I wanted to talk he would always say: ‘Oh please, let it be.’
No grave, no place to mourn
My husband took the coffin to the graveyard but I do not know where my boy was buried. He had not been baptized, so I guess they put him in the unconsecrated grounds. I have never been able to figure out where that could be. There is no grave. He has no name. When I came home from the hospital everything reminding of the baby was gone, I looked everywhere, I needed these baby things to mourn, but my mother removed them all. I asked her, but she thought it was best not to think of him anymore.
But it does not work like that. It has always been there, in my head. Maybe even more when we became grandfather and grandmother. When we were young, we were busy and we raised a family.
The meaning of the monument
My boy was born on March 25. That day is special. I always want to go to the monument on that day. I used to do that with my husband, but now I go with my daughter. If there would have been a grave, I would go there, but now I go to the monument. As a way of paying respect to my eldest son. I have another son, his name is Charles, that is the name we would have given to the eldest. And I have a daughter, Jenny.
I read in the newspaper about the monument. We donated money and we all went to the dedication ceremony, it was very emotional, there were so many other people.
I know that nowadays they make pictures when a child is stillborn, and they have a beautiful funeral. My son was denied a proper farewell; It was not respectful at all; he has been dumped.
Nowadays I am often angry, I am angry because of the disrespectful way the church handled unbaptized stillborn babies, nobody ever came to offer solace. I am also angry at the doctors and the nuns in the hospital. Never did they offer solace.”
This is the story of Mrs. van Melsen and her eldest son.
Dutch Monuments for Stillborn Children
The monument at the graveyard near the church of Sint Pieter was dedicated on June 21, 2009. It symbolizes a firmly rooted, but broken, sunflower. A butterfly, attached to the flower, seems to be ready to fly. The initiative for the monument was taken by parents who had lost their child at birth and went through the same ordeal as Mr. and Mrs. van Melsen. They established a foundation and started to raise money to erect a monument. The website of this foundation Mijn vlinderkind (“My Butterfly Child) provides more information on the initiative and background of the monument, which is just one example of more than 160 monuments that had been erected in the Netherlands by 2000.
In most cases, these monuments are the local and private initiatives of parents like the van Melsen couple. Financial support may have been offered by different parties, including the Roman Catholic Church, local hospitals and local communities. Most of these monuments are at the premises of graveyards and cemeteries, crematoria, or next to mainly Roman Catholic churches, the places where these stillborn children were buried anonymously at the time.1
Until the mid-1980s, healthcare professionals determined the routines around birth in the Netherlands. As a consequence, and according to the protocols at the time, stillborn children were most often immediately taken away after birth. Caregivers had been taught that it was best not induce emotions by acquainting the parents with their stillborn child because it would be more difficult for them to handle their loss once they had seen and held their child. Medical professionals marginalized grief, and there was no specific death- or funeral-related rituals. The same routines prevailed in other countries as well. In 1986, in the United States, researchers performed an extensive survey among parents of stillborn children, titled “forgotten parents.”2
Forgotten parents and continuing bonds with their stillborn children
I have been studying this particular group of forgotten parents in the Netherlands for more than 10 years now. Today, worldwide, parents of stillborn children are better-taken care of with respect to their immense grief. They have the possibility to pay respect and memorialize their stillborn child. Deborah Davis observes that the “gold standard of care is to approach parents with the knowledge that this baby is theirs and to support them in spending as many hours or days and nights as they want with their little one.”3 Bobo Lau and colleagues conclude that instead of cutting all ties with the deceased, continuing bonds may help legitimize and concretize the loss.4
In this respect, not only in the Netherlands but in most countries in Europe and in the US, organizing a funeral with accompanying rituals also became part of the bereavement and mourning process. This way of acting appears to be in sharp contrast with the Dutch parents in my research, the “forgotten parents” as mentioned above; many of them are still trying to cope with feelings of sorrow, guilt, and anger about the events at the time of the death of their child.
Mrs. van Melsen indicated to me that in the absence of a grave, the monument functions as a continuing bond with her eldest boy. Avril Maddrell elaborates on how continuing bonds with the deceased may be materialized: “It can be performative, expressed through ritual and other embodied acts, (…) through material objects like graves, flowers and plants, memorials, domestic shrines or photographs.”5
The word “monument” derives from the Latin word monere, “to make public, to remember.”
Erecting a monument in public space ensures that the public will remember certain facts and events and keep memories. In this respect, Maya Lin, designer of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C., offers an interesting perspective. A monument and the memorial place are meant for “personal reflection and private reckoning.” As Lin argues, the meaning of the monument should be generated while “experiencing” the commemorative place by means of (ritual) commemoration practices.6
This is exactly what happened when Mrs. van Melsen and I visited the monument, and we paid respect to her son by ritually laying an autumnal flower piece. She said, “I have the monument of my child at Sint Pieter. I think the monument is also a sign of protest, everything was unfair at the time and we did not dare to protest. I just have to talk about what happened, that is important to me.”
Parents of stillborn children benefit from a public place in order to, finally, come to terms with the loss of their stillborn children. A monument, or a retraced grave, may “work” in this respect. Apart from this “healing” aspect with regard to the loss of the child, in particular cases, the monument, place and, maybe also commemorative ritual practices, also mean a sign of protest regarding the disrespectful way in which a stillbirth was handled at the time by medical professionals and the Roman Catholic Church.
- Laurie Faro, Postponed Monuments in the Netherlands. Manifestation, Context, and Meaning (PhD thesis, Tilburg University, 2015); Janneke Peelen, Between Birth and Death. Rituals of Pregnancy Loss in the Netherlands (PhD Thesis, Nijmegen University, 2011). Return to text.
- John DeFrain, Leona Martens, Jan Stork and Warren Stork, Stillborn: The Invisible Death (Lexington, MA: Lexington Books, 1986). Return to text.
- Deborah Davis, Empty Cradle, Broken Heart: Surviving the Death of Your Baby (Golden, CO: Fulcrum Publishing). Return to text.
- Bobo Lau, Candy Fong, and Celia Chan, “Reaching the Unspoken Grief: Continuing Parental Bonds During Pregnancy Loss,” in Continuing Bonds in Bereavement: New Directions for Research and Practice, eds. Dennis Klass and Edith Steffen (New York, NY: Routledge, 2018), 150-160. Return to text.
- Avril Maddrell, “Living With the Deceased: Absence, Presence and Absence-presence,” Cultural geographies 20 no. 4 (2013): 501-522. Return to text.
- Maya Lin, “Grounds for Remembering: Monuments, Memorials, Texts” Doreen B. Townsend Center Occasional Papers, no. 3 (Berkeley: Doreen B. Townsend Center, 1995) 8-14; E. S. CASEY: Remembering. A Phenomenological Study (Bloomington, 2000), 187. Return to text.