I pre-cried in the truck for a good 30 minutes before walking into the monthly meeting of the Tuolumne River WoodWorkers Association at the Scout Hall in Riverbank.
I wept not for the oak and pine trees slaughtered then buzzed into fantastic forms, but for the project the men inside were just whittling down.
Weeks earlier, I was given a photo of a table full of impossibly small wooden boxes and told they were caskets. Too small to hold the remains of anything but babies, I knew I could never hold it together to get the rest of the story, so I let it all out alone in the truck. My preemptive bawling worked, and I breezed inside looking unconcerned, yukking it up with the dozen grayhaired men, even firing off old carpenter jokes about missing fingertips and sawdust in the crotch.
The WoodWorkers were making tiny urns for the Garden of Innocence, a California-based non-profit dedicated to “providing dignified burials for abandoned children,” with a new chapter coming to Merced County.
“We just buried our 371st baby in the Gardens and have 11 more going in … Fresno (nine) and Orange county (twins),” said Elissa Davey, founder of GOI and resident of San Diego County.
Here’s how it works: Hospitals must file death certificates on all stillbirths that have reached at least 20 weeks of gestation. If family doesn’t claim these babies within 30 days, they are turned over to the coroner’s office, who cremates them.
“We just ask (coroners) if we can assist them with the indigent burials of abandoned children,” says Davey, who then arranges to give each child a name and pays “hundreds of dollars” for death certificates, cremation and interment. Sometimes, GOI also pays for grave markers.
Making arrangements in Merced County was particularly easy, said Davey. “I spoke to (the Merced county coroner) personally and he told me I got him at ‘Hello!’”
GOI put out a video with instructions about how to make the urns. A member of Tuolumne River WoodWorkers saw it, and decided they could help.
GOI has 10 “Gardens” in California, starting in San Diego. The newest is in Merced.
“We have about four or five babies waiting for their services in Merced, but that will wait til September … if we have to,” says Davey, where a donated area at Evergreen Cemetery on B Street waits.
GOI’s general manager, Enrique Reade, explains, “It’s a water problem. Something’s wrong with their irrigation system at Evergreen, so there’s a lot of brown grass in the area. They don’t want the place to look bad for a service.”
A brutal piece in Newsreview.com back in 2013 asks, “Does nonprofit Garden of Innocence honor abandoned children – or secretly conduct extravagant burials for stillborn fetuses?”
The report says very few of the hundreds of children interred by GOI were abandoned in the “baby-found-in-dumpster” sense, but are stillborn and left at hospitals by low-income mothers.
Davey is upfront about where her babies come from, “Some have lived for a month or more after having open heart surgery right after birth, but many of our children have lived hours or days.”
Still, why would anyone want to toss the sweet, well-meaning, public-money-saving GOI people into the woodchipper?
“Who knows why people want to tear each other down?” asks Reade, who donates his time from the funeral business in Fresno. “Who knows?”
I’ve got some ideas. Fans of abortion look at naming, then giving a funeral and headstone to a fetus as a threat. Bad optics for their cause.
So don’t expect consistent applause if somebody fixes Evergreen’s water and donations pour into the WoodWorkers and those babies get put to rest properly. I’ll be back in my truck.
Steve Taylor, a resident of Oakdale, is a behavior analyst. He wrote this for The Modesto Bee. Email: email@example.com.