This week (9-15 October) is Baby Loss Awareness Week. Understandably, this is an incredibly emotive issue and one that many people don’t think about if it is not something they have direct personal experience of. However, in the UK fourteen babies a day die before, during or soon after birth, so the chances are you know someone who has experienced such loss, even if you didn’t realise it.
Today, there are many organisations offering support and campaigning for better care and understanding about pregnancy and infant loss, and parents are encouraged to spend time with their baby being as involved as they choose to be in organising the funeral and/or remembrance services. Memory boxes are often created containing photographs, hand and footprints, a lock of hair and perhaps verses and other mementoes that may offer support for grieving parents.
However, before the mid-1980s parents were rarely consulted about funeral arrangements for stillborn infants, and many mothers were unable even to meet their baby. It may seem incomprehensible to many people (then as well as now), but this lack of engagement was often thought to be in the mother’s best interests – little, if any, thought was given to the father. In fact, in a Commons debate earlier this year it was acknowledged that parents were still not fully involved in arrangements for the post mortem care of their baby well into the present century (see Hansard, 6 Feb 2020, Historic Stillbirth Burials and Cremations).
As a result, many parents do not know what happened to their baby and have never been able to visit a grave. Occasionally, we receive enquiries at the record office from people looking for a grave or for any information relating to stillborn infants, often from younger siblings who didn’t even know about them until their elderly parents, considering their own mortality, want to find answers to the questions that have been with them for many decades.
Under the Births and Deaths Registration Act of 1874, a declaration of stillbirth was required so that babies who had been born alive but died shortly afterwards could not be buried as stillborn. However, there was no local or national register of these declarations and it was not until 1 July 1927 that it became a legal requirement to register a stillbirth (until 1992, this included all babies born dead after 24 weeks, since 1992, it includes babies born dead after 28 weeks). In contrast, to the birth, marriage and death records maintained by the General Register Office (GRO), copy certificates for stillbirths can only be requested by the mother or father of the child, or by a sibling if their parents are no longer alive. Contact the GRO for further advice.
Searching for a grave
Unfortunately, it is not always possible to identify a grave location or find information relating to babies who were stillborn, and even less so to those who died during pregnancy, such loss usually referred to as a miscarriage. Sands (Stillbirth and neonatal death charity) and Brief Lives Remembered who have lots of experiences in supporting parents and families to find graves and other records have produced very helpful guides which I have relied on heavily to produce this Derbyshire-specific guide.
Before the 1970s and 1980s, stillborn infants or their ashes would often have been buried in a communal grave or with an unrelated female, and probably unmarked. Although cemeteries were not legally required to record burials of stillborn children before 1975, it may still be possible to identify the churchyard or cemetery in which the burial took place (this is often the case for other churchyard burials as well where no grave plan exists).
For infants who born alive but died shortly after a full burial entry ought to be included in the relevant church or cemetery register – see our guide to Derbyshire burials for information about what these records may tell you and how to search them. For stillborn infants, it may be worth checking the registers which are generally arranged chronologically, but if stillbirths are recorded, this may be at the end of the volume (for example, Parish of Heath, ref: D1610/A/PI/41/1).
Derbyshire Record Office does not generally hold original records for civil cemeteries or crematoria. Copies of most cemetery registers up to 1997 are available on microfilm at the record office, but records of cremations can only be obtained through the relevant district or parish council (see http://www.gov.uk/find-local-council). A small number of parish councils have deposited registers explicitly relating to stillborn infants, including Shirebrook, 1944-1961, and Chellaston, 1934-1944.
There are also other records for the civil cemeteries – first established after 1852 and run by Burial Boards – which may offer some information about arrangements for burials of stillborn infants, though not naming individuals, though occasionally there are also accounts relating to grave purchases for individuals. Burial Board records are often found amongst the archives of the successor borough, district or parish council, though a few are held in collections specifically relating to the board itself.
Occasionally, it may also be possible to trace information through the records of the funeral director. Although Derbyshire Record Office does not hold any of funeral directors, many firms are still in operation and could be contacted directly with regards to their records. Where the firm is no longer operating, local studies sources such as newspapers and directories may help identify a successor company, but this is likely to take some time and may not always be possible.
Before 1927 and for loss in pregnancy before 28/24 weeks, it is unlikely that there will be any surviving records because there was no requirement to keep or method for recording this information. However, there are other records that might be of some assistance depending on individual circumstances.
Where they survive, hospital records may also include references to women in the maternity ward or maternity home. The Derby Borough health visitors registers covering 1944-1977 (ref: D5118) often include records of stillbirths, usually at the end of the volume. The same may also be true for similar registers covering the county (ref: D3193). There are also a very small number of records deposited or donated by individual midwives, including information about individual births. In the 19th and early 20th century, the admission registers and case books for the county and borough asylums (ref: D1658 and D5874 respectively) often include agonising cases of women who have suffered the loss of a child.
According to the Family Tree Forum the church sexton may have maintained a list of child burials. Although no such records appear to survive in Derbyshire, there are several sexton’s records relating to graveyard and interments that may include some information. The website also refers to that fact that notices may appear in 19th century newspapers, though these are likely to be few and far between and concern only the higher classes.
There are very few other references to stillborn children and baby loss in the archives at the record office. Some of these can be found in the catalogue, usually amongst family collections containing letters or other personal records, others will be “hidden” in registers or other records and there to be discovered.
Support and further information
Baby Loss Awareness Week culminates with the global “Wave of Light” at 7pm on Thursday 15 October to remember the babies and the families who died before, during or soon after birth. For more information about taking part, see www.babyloss-awareness.org/wave-of-light/ or see #BLAW2020 #waveoflight on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram
I shall be lighting mine in memory of the two babies whom I shall never meet but often think of, for their mothers who I have known a long time and for their fathers who are still all too often overlooked.