Garden of Innocence is a non-profit organization that started in San Diego in 1999 that provides dignified burials for abandoned or unidentified children. In most cases, the children have died in a hospital and their bodies have been released by the county medical examiner to the organization after parents have not been found or convinced of claiming the body after 30 days. Other children have been found dead in other settings (i.e. garbage dumps), and their parents have not been found after months or years of investigation. The organization buries each child in a handmade coffin, with a blanket and a toy. These children often do not have a name, or their name is not known, so a member of the community is encouraged to give him/her one. Additionally, a poem is made for each child, which is read during their burial service. Hundreds of people, strangers really, come out to service (which usually is for more than one child) to commemorate the life of the child. Part of ceremony consists of passing the casket or urn from person to person, signifying that the child and the community have been mutually touched by each other’s presence. This organization has expanded at the national level, with 17 gardens across the US. Their hope is to expand to all 50 states.
My first instinct when learning about this organization was that they do some great work. Isn’t everyone deserving of a proper funeral and burial? This organization provides a service to a forgotten portion of society. However, when I learned that they assign names to the children I became a little bothered. I understand that having a name gives someone a sense of dignity, a sense of being, a sense of being present. However, is it really appropriate for a stranger to give a child a name? In a news article I read, which you can access here, someone justified giving a child the name of Daniel because it was a traditional family name. Another child was named Jose because a lot of Joses work at the garden. By doing this doesn’t this become less about the child and more about the people involved in the burial? But then again this demonstrative of what we have been talking about all semester…that death is more of a concern for the living than the dead. While I understand that people’s intentions are most likely good when doing this, that by giving a child a traditional family name you are making them part of your own (family), to a certain extent it takes away a certain degree of altruism to which we may want to ascribe to these funerals. Because there were not preexisting bonds between the child and the “mourner”, you start to question why exactly they taking part in the funeral and burial proceedings? What kind of people are the ones who participate in these funerals? Is it a way for people to deal with the loss of a child or loved one themselves?
When I looked more into how this organization obtains their caskets I found that they have a partnership with a woodworking department at a high school and a Boy Scout troop. They have dubbed the program Children Making Caskets for Children. While I can see why some people can see this program as problematic, I think it is a good way to get children to start talking about death, a taboo within our society especially among this age group. This can be an opportunity to help these children making the caskets conceptualize and understand death better. It can definitely foster a healthy conversation and space for questions on the topic to be asked. Although it is not indicated, I hope that the children are prepared and sensitized on the topic before going on to build the caskets. This is important, especially when building caskets for children, nonetheless abandoned and unidentified ones, because many children may not have prior experience with death, child death, or child abandonment.
How do you feel about this organization’s work? What do you think about this Children Making Caskets for Children Program?
**I’d like to note that I think it is important to consider what societal factors may lead someone to abandon their child. It is easy to view the child as the victim through the lens of an organization such as Garden of Innocence, but it is vital to realize that the child’s parents could be victims of societal forces that may lead them to inevitably having to abandon their dead child.
You can learn more about Garden of Innocence by visiting their websites:
National Website http://gardenofinnocence.org/home.html
San Diego Chapter Website http://www.gardenofinnocence.com/homepage.html