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Saturday, 27 April 2013

The Children Who Die Too Soon

Elizabeth Gaskell’s poem for her stillborn daughter, 1836

Elizabeth.GaskellOn Visiting the Grave of My Stillborn Little Girl

I made a vow within my soul, O child,
When thou wert laid beside my weary heart,
With marks of Death on every tender part,
That, if in time a living infant smiled,
                       Winning my ear with gentle sounds of love
                           In sunshine of such joy, I still would save
A green rest for thy memory, O Dove!
And oft times visit thy small, nameless grave.
Thee have I not forgot, my firstborn, thou
Whose eyes ne’er opened to my wistful gaze,
Whose suff’rings stamped with pain thy little brow;
I think of thee in these far happier days,
And thou, my child, from thy bright heaven see
How well I keep my faithful vow to thee.

                                                                      ---------------

It’s late January 1996 and a terrible day. My father has died barely three weeks before and my brother and I are sharing the sad, sacred duty of wheeling my mother’s coffin down the neatly tended paths of the Orthodox Jewish cemetery at Waltham Abbey, Greater London.

Suddenly I’m distracted. As we trundle Mum to her final rest, we pass aJewish.Cemetery.U.K. small plot filled with tiny graves and miniature headstones. While my mother had lived her biblically allotted seventy years, I realise these children’s lives had been snuffed out before they’d truly begun. Unjust; upside-down; quite cruelly against the natural order. However, these youngsters were accorded full funeral rites and headstones mark their graves.

But what of those who are miscarried, born ‘out of wedlock’ or considered too young to be ‘real’ people and are therefore buried swiftly, anonymously and without honour?

Although my mother did miscarry one of my siblings, I have no childrenTerry.McDonagh myself and therefore am unable to offer personal experience of the subject. But Terry McDonagh’s finely crafted poem, Limbo  which appeared in the March edition of Live Encounters magazine,  persuaded me to examine further how ultra early infant death is treated by different religious traditions.

The Jewish concept of ‘illegitimacy’ is different from other faiths. But that aside, I’ve been forced to conclude that  Orthodox Judaism is still implacably indifferent to the plight of families bereaved by neonatal or  early infant death, especially compared to the current approaches of Progressive Judaism, the  Christian faiths and Islam, all of which are far more sympathetic.

No wonder then, that while the non-Jewish world has produced several marvellously sensitive pieces like those of Gaskell and McDonagh, which reflect the pain of such bereavement, there is nothing comparable I can find in Jewish sources.

When the previous Pope Benedict XVI formally abolished the Catholic doctrine of ‘Limbo’ in 2007, he overturned a belief held since the Middle Ages. Meanwhile, Orthodox Jewish tradition still dictates that if a baby does not survive for 30 days, it is as if the child has not lived.

What is worse? To be forced, as per the former Catholic doctrine, to believe your darling child dwells somewhere on the border of Hell or to be told by a Jewish authority that the perfectly formed individual you created  never really existed and is the equivalent of an amputated limb?

McDonagh explains: “Growing up in a very Catholic environment in the west of Ireland, I was very conscious of Limbo as a state or place where non-baptised children were to exist, without ever seeing the face of God, for all eternity. It was bad enough for a mother to lose a child, but the thought of Limbo was tragic. These children could not be buried in consecrated ground, but it is said that mothers baptised their stillborn babies themselves in the hope that they could see the face of God. Burial often took place after dark, in secret, by fathers or close relatives. I found this so unjust as a child. Thankfully Limbo is no longer an article of faith.”

Seamus.HeaneyThis is a subject which surely concentrates the minds of Irish writers, as McDonagh’s countryman, the Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney has tackled it famously in a poem also entitled Limbo, published in his great 1966 collection, Death of a Naturalist, which volume coincidentally also includes a moving piece about the death of his four-year-old brother (Mid-Term Break).

I wonder now how either of them would describe the plight of Darren Clift who, I earnestly hope, was allowed to organise a full funeral for his stillborn daughter as well as for his late wife, Lindsay.

Or how would they cope with the story of  nine-day-old Australian infant, Jaylea Thompson who died cradled in the crook of her mother’s arm as they slept on a couch after an early morning feed? Jaylea’s passing may have been through Sudden Infant Death Syndrome or perhaps accidental asphyxiation. The Coroner at the Inquest was not fully certain. But again, we can hope only that if her parents wanted to organise a formal burial and headstone, they were allowed to do so.

Research advises that rituals pertaining to miscarriage, stillbirth and death
among
Muslim children depend on the age of the child or the stage of a foetus’s development. However,  
full Islamic ritual is carried out for foetuses that have developed; stillborn babies and children”.

It is not so long ago, before the evolution of modern antibiotics and surgical techniques, that people often had large families as they realised that many of their children may die well before adulthood. So traditional Judaism, in line with these earlier social norms, made  little of perinatal deaths and a dead baby was treated as outlined above and buried in an unmarked grave, in the general section of a cemetery  to avoid ritual uncleanliness for a Cohen (a man recognised as a member of the priestly clan).

There is only one explanation that I can give for this ruling: that the spiritual welfare of an individual who considers himself superior to other Jews is put above the welfare of a grieving family. Here, I must confess is an area where modern Orthodox Judaism trails badly.

Where Progressive Judaism now agrees that times have changed from the days of common infant deaths and allows families “personal autonomy (allowing) laypeople and rabbis to observe or not observe as they see fit”, Orthodoxy still denies parents the right to hold a funeral, to mark a grave with a headstone and to ‘sit shiva’ - the formal seven-day mourning period - and the infant is buried as described above.

I firmly believe it’s time for a change here. ‘Counselling’ sessions and sympathy are not enough and I now challenge the Orthodox Jewish authorities to find away around the law and devise new traditions for the present age.

Mark.UlyseasThis piece first appeared in the April 2013 edition of Live Encounters magazine (http://liveencounters.net/?p=3055) edited by Mark Ulyseas, a faithful supporter of Israel and all matters Jewish.

msniw

 

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