A program aimed at giving the unclaimed dead a funeral service will now perform a similar ritual for the ashes of 29 fetuses and stillborn babies.
It will be the first such mass funeral for fetuses in South Florida. The miscarried fetuses and stillborn babies were unclaimed by their families and cremated at two local funeral homes, some of them many years ago.
Believing that they deserve a dignified burial, the Diocese of Palm Beach is planning a non-denominational ceremony, similar to services it performs for deceased adults in Palm Beach County who go unclaimed.
"As Catholics, we believe human beings have to be given a final place to rest," said Thomas Jordan, administrator of Our Lady Queen of Peace Cemetery, where the ceremony will be held.
Florida law requires that fetuses who die at 20 weeks gestation or older or who weigh more than 500 grams — about a pound — be disposed of by "proper means," and families are typically given a list of funeral homes in the area that provide that service, said Dr. Nabil El Sanadi, chief of emergency medicine at Broward Health.
If a fetus dies before 20 weeks, any unclaimed remains are disposed of as pathology tissue, El Sanadi said.
Twenty-seven of the 29 have been held over the years at Edgley Cremation Services in West Palm Beach, one of several vendors that contract with the county to dispose of unclaimed remains.
Edgley received the remains from area hospitals after they were unclaimed following a still birth or miscarriage, said co-owner Diane Edgley.
By law, funeral homes are required to hold unclaimed remains for 120 days and then are free to dispose of them in a legal way. But Edgley officials didn't want to scatter the ashes, according to Brittany Rossi, Edgley's manager.
"My stepfather [co-owner John Edgley] just never wanted to get rid of them," in case someone one day came to claim them, Rossi said. So the remains have been kept in the office in temporary plastic urns.
The funeral home has been working with the Rev. Gabriel Ghanoum, who also leads St. Nicholas Melkite Catholic Church in Delray Beach. He started the diocese's No One Buried Alone ministry, to give a decent burial to anyone who died and whose remains were unclaimed.
After having Ghanoum bury several adults, Edgley decided to have him do the same with the fetuses it had accumulated over the years.
The remains will be placed in an area of a Royal Palm Beach cemetery for babies. It will be marked by a monument, and the burial will be conducted in a way that will enable the remains to be retrieved if a family member comes to claim them, Rossi said.
Religious faiths approach neonatal deaths with an assortment of rules, many stemming from ancient practices but evolved for modern times.
Episcopal and Anglican churches offer special prayers for miscarriages. In Judaism's Conservative movement, decisions on how to mourn premature births are made by local rabbis and parents.
The faiths of the fetuses to be buried Saturday are unknown, Jordan said.
The 29 stillborn babies and fetuses, two of which came from another funeral home, are charity cases handled by Palm Beach County's Division of Human and Veteran Services, the county agency responsible for seeing that unclaimed remains are legally disposed of.
In all such cases, the remains are cremated at funeral homes that contract with the county, unless the family has religious objections, said Assistant County Administrator John Van Arnam. But he said it's rare for these remains to attract such objections since no one has claimed them.
Typically, in communities across the United States, vendor funeral homes will bury the remains, or scatter the ashes, with no ceremony — religious or otherwise.
It was a regular occurrence in Palm Beach County, too, until Ghanoum learned of it.
"He [Ghanoum] has a heart for it," said Claudia Tuck, director of the county's Division of Human and Veteran Services. "I don't know that it's being done anywhere else. We're fortunate to have him in our community."
Joan Crown, director of the Archdiocese of Miami's Respect Life ministry, said there is no similar ministry in Broward or Miami-Dade County, though the archdiocese has conducted funeral services for babies abandoned in botched, high-profile abortion cases.
The fetuses to be buried Saturday are not the result of abortions, Jordan and Edgley said.
"Many of the mothers were in their early 20s and don't understand the responsibility," said Adriana Gorrondona, a Palm Beach County case worker who works on funerals for the indigent. "They think the hospital will take care of it."
Ghanoum said he encounters these cases almost daily in his work as chaplain at JFK Medical Center in Atlantis. In May, he conducted a ceremony for 37 unclaimed adults. He said he has led funerals for about 400 indigent people over the past two years, but only one fetus.
The diocese is inviting the public to the 11 a.m. ceremony at Our Lady Queen of Peace Cemetery, 10941 Southern Blvd.
"We will give these 29 little angels who have been abandoned a spiritual adoption," said Ghanoum. "Even if they are abandoned, they are not abandoned by us. The last thing I tell them is, 'I love you.'"
Lsolomon@tribune.com or 561-243-6536.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun