A work of mercy
The two young fathers led the silent procession. The handcrafted, foot-long caskets they carried, chest-high, were as light as small jewelry boxes. The men processed single file, followed by family members, to the mausoleum of St. Charles Borromeo Cemetery in Destrehan on Aug. 14.
They were coming to bury their tiny children – Aliason and Jermirri – who both were born prematurely at 23 weeks gestation and lived only a few hours.
“God’s word brings consolation to our hearts, and we know that the Lord, in the good moments of our lives and the sad moments of our lives, will never abandon us,” Oblate Father George Roy, director of the Center of Jesus the Lord, told family members huddled around a table bearing the two caskets, inscribed with a cross and the children’s names. “We pray that the Lord will take them to himself and give them the peace and joy he reserves for all of his children.”
In the last 11 years, an all-volunteer group known as Compassionate Burials for Indigent Children (CBIB) has provided burial services for 30 babies whose families could not afford a funeral. Burying the dead is the last of the seven corporal works of mercy. The journey since 2003 has left CBIB founder Lise Naccari almost at a loss for words.
“I never want to say no to any of these mothers,” Naccari said. “They want to bury their baby, but they cannot.”
CBIB relies on an extended network of helpers. Beyond receiving the assistance of nurses and doctors who identify needy families who have lost a child, local funeral homes, cemeteries and individual patrons with crypts or burial plots have stepped up either to donate or greatly discount the cost of their services.
Individual CBIB members craft the tiny caskets, stitch together white, silk linings for the inside, sew tiny burial dresses and create tiny, huggable “angel” dolls that are embroidered with the child’s name and handed to the mother at the funeral.
“That mother never lets go of the doll,” Naccari said. “We used to give them potted plants, and they were holding them during the funeral. It’s the empty-arm syndrome. That’s when we decided to make the dolls.”
“To see that mother caress that baby doll in her arms is amazing,” said CBIB member Mary Grace Orsag.
Naccari was raised Baptist and attended Catholic schools most of her life. But it wasn’t until 1991, when she began attending the Center of Jesus the Lord, that she felt a powerful tug to convert to the Catholic faith while studying and praying with the late Father Emile Lafranz.
There, she met Lloyd Williams, a man with a cleft palate who had trouble speaking. Father Lafranz offered Williams a job as a security guard, and over months of conversation, Williams told Naccari about a dream he had when he died: he wanted a jazz funeral.
“And he wasn’t even sick,” Naccari said. “His last words to me were, ‘You’re sure you’re going to do this jazz funeral for me?’ I said, ‘I’ve got it all taken care of.’”
That night, Williams, who showed no signs of illness, died in his sleep of a heart attack.
True to her word, Naccari and members of the center gathered jazz musicians of all stripes for the funeral Mass and second line.
“It’s a miracle story,” Naccari said. “We closed off Rampart Street. We had 300 roses for his coffin. There were 300 people for his funeral. It was beautiful.”
First burial in 2003
In 2003, Naccari was the vice president of New Orleans Right to Life when someone mentioned at a meeting that a baby girl, Tashanie, had been aborted and needed a Christian funeral. The story had become public because the mother had been sent home by the abortion clinic following the procedure and hemorrhaged, nearly bleeding to death herself.
I almost fell off my chair,” Naccari said. “I said, ‘That’s me. I’ve got to do that.’ That mother had a gruesome, awful experience. How many women do not tell that story? Our message is that God loves you. And God loves those babies. We believe in life from conception, and we believe it needs to be reverenced, just like Jesus was reverenced through death.”
After that first infant funeral, Naccari started paying attention. “Then babies started popping up in trash cans,” she said.
Naccari called the Jefferson Parish coroner and asked if anyone had come forward to claim a discarded baby for burial.
“When you have a situation like this, people don’t want to address it,” Naccari said. “These babies do not get buried because somebody’s going to jail, and the baby falls into limbo. How sad.”
A baby left in a gym bag
After receiving permission to bury that baby – Cody Jr. – Naccari got a call from the coroner’s office. Could she bury another child? The mother had given birth at home, dressed the infant in clothes, put her in a gym bag and then threw her into a dumpster, where she was found dead by a homeless man rummaging for food.
“The mother went to jail,” Naccari said. “The baby came to us, and she was absolutely beautiful.”
In the first few years, CBIB was burying about two or three babies every year. In the last year, as word about the organization has begun to spread, that number has jumped to two or three per month. With each funeral costing about $1,000, the vast increase in numbers has Naccari praying for help. She also has received more inquiries recently about burying the babies of poor families.
“We’re just a bunch of maw-maws and paw-paws,” Naccari said. “It’s a miracle, but we always seem to have just enough. As soon as I write a big check for these funerals – which depletes the account – all of a sudden another check will come in for the same amount I have written out. It’s a journey of faith. It’s a test of your faith.”
Greg Ledet, an Algiers man who “grew up in sawdust” as an apprentice to his cabinet-maker father, attended last week’s funeral. In his garage workshop, Ledet expertly crafts some of the tiny wooden caskets that are used for the infant burials. It was the first time Ledet had been able to attend a funeral in which his caskets were used.
“At first, it was just dimensions and measurements, but when I saw those fathers carrying the boxes so reverently, it was like – bam – this is such a sacred thing,” Ledet said. “This was a crucial part of this family’s mourning. That’s when it really hit home to me. Four days earlier, those boxes were in my garage on my table, and now they were holding this precious, unborn child.”
Dinora Perez, whose baby had lived only a few hours, clutched the angel doll close to her breast.
“It’s really hard, but I know she’s at peace now, resting somewhere,” Perez said. “I will definitely come back to visit. It’s a peace in your heart to know you have your daughter somewhere where you can visit.”
Nyijia Laneheart said the funeral for her infant son Jermirri would not have been possible on her own.
“I’m really thankful and happy,” she said. “It means the world to me. I have to do it. It’s the only thing I can celebrate with my child. I can’t do any birthdays, any Christmases.”
For more information or to donate to CBIB, go to cbibabies.org or call 202-3111.