By Ronnie Polaneczky, Daily News Columnist
I COULDN'T DO what Elissa Davey does. My heart couldn't bear it.
She claims the bodies or cremated remains of abandoned children. She provides them with a name and a funeral. As she told me this week: "Babies who die deserve more than a toe tag with a number on it. They deserve to have their lives acknowledged, no matter how briefly they lived."
Davey performs these acts of love in donated cemetery space in seven counties in California through her nonprofit, Garden of Innocence, founded in 1999.
Since then, she has buried 267 abandoned children with the help of a growing cadre of national volunteers moved by her mission. Boy Scout troops in Pennsylvania build her pint-size coffins and urns. Retirees in the Midwest sew quilts to swaddle the body or envelop the ashes. Donors write funeral poems, and musicians offer songs so that children never leave the world uncelebrated just because they were unknown.
This month, Davey will visit western Pennsylvania and meet with some county coroners about expanding her mission.
"We have one garden outside of California" - in Missouri, says Davey, who is based in San Diego. "I am 66. I want to have every state covered by the time I'm 78."
For most parents, losing a child is the worst heartache they will ever know. They memorialize their kids in photo albums, establish scholarships in their names, engrave headstones that tell the world that their child will forever be cherished.
They are parents like those profiled by my colleague Dana DiFilippo in today's story about the Angel Garden, a Bucks County cemetery reserved for babies.
The children whom Davey buries have no such parents. Some were victims of crimes, but most - startlingly - died in hospitals, stillborn. Or they perished after a premature birth. Their parents either never claimed their bodies or they signed over the task to the hospital.
In the latter case, the hospital would arrange for cremation with the coroner, who'd then dispose of the ashes with those of others whose bodies had never been claimed. The ashes often end up in unmarked graves in a potter's field.
With no one to mourn them, it is almost as if they never lived.
That knowledge was too much for Davey to endure, back in 1999, when she read that the body of an unidentified newborn girl had been found on a mountainside, mummified after two years. The coroner planned to cremate the body and dispose of the ashes without ceremony. Davey asked if she could provide a dignified burial for the child, then set about organizing a funeral as big as the lost promise of the little girl's life.
"I drove the body to the mortuary, for preparation, and it felt so odd. So I did what every mom does when her child is in the car. I sang her nursery rhymes - 'Mary Had a Little Lamb' and 'Patty Cake.' I talked to her. I said, 'You're an American,' and I sang her the national anthem and 'This is My Country.' "
By the time she got to the mortuary, Davey says, she felt "totally bonded" to the baby.
In the funerals she has arranged since then, she wants the many volunteers and strangers who attend to feel the same. Before the graveside service begins, mourners stand in a circle as the child's casket or urn is passed in silence from one attendee to the next. By the time the child's remains complete the circle, says Davey, "Everyone loves that child. They're crying. The child has touched their hearts. She belongs to them."
Nearly all services are donated: the nondenominational minister's prayers, the musician's songs, the mortuary's tasks, the solemn march of the color guard from the Knights of Columbus. And doves are released to "symbolize God, the spirit in all of us and the spirit of the children being celebrated," Davey says.
She has done this 267 times, which is 267 more times than I could bear. Which gave me 267 reasons to do some research when Davey asked if there was a need for a Garden of Innocence in this area.
I wish I could report that the answer was, "No, because our children are equally mourned."
But this is a true-life story, not a fairy tale.
Although spokesmen for the coroners in Philly's near suburbs said they receive the bodies of "some" babies from hospitals each year (most are stillborn), the number jumps in the city.
Jeff Moran, spokesman for the Philadelphia Medical Examiner, says a "significant number" of the 300-plus unclaimed bodies received by the office each year are stillborn children or those who died late in pregnancy. If they remain unclaimed, their bodies, like the others, are eventually cremated and interred in a group grave at Laurel Hill Cemetery along Kelly Drive.
The cemetery keeps meticulous records of those interred so the ashes can be exhumed if a loved one turns up at a later date hoping to claim them.
I wish there were no need for a Garden of Innocence, here or anywhere. And, obviously, some will argue that its mission is a waste of time, given the number of suffering children in the world who need our love and attention right now, while they're alive.
I get that.
But everyone deserves, when they leave this world, acknowledgment that they belonged to it. The least we should do for the most vulnerable among us is bear witness to that fact.
Especially when they die young, alone and without a name.