Two of the tiny obituaries, six gray lines with no photos, ran on the same day.
Babies with no families.
The funeral home's phone started ringing. Some people were angry. Some were in tears. Some were just plain curious.
Were they dropped at the fire station? Were they left in the trash?
Cecile Maharne calmly told them no.
Then how could it happen?
The babies were stillborn or died just after birth, she explained. No one claimed the bodies, so the funeral home was doing what it could.
They have a saying there.
Do the right thing even when no one knows you're doing it.
• • •
BLANCHARD, Baby Girl
Infant died Sunday, Feb. 21, 2010, at Bayfront Medical Center. There are no known survivors.
• • •
The least privileged die with little fanfare — the homeless, the poor, the lonely.
The babies no one will own.
There is one stillbirth for every 200 pregnancies. Many other babies die of complications after birth.
Almost all parents make funeral arrangements for their babies, pick out a casket, say goodbye. In a world of drugs and abuse and teen mothers hiding bellies, there have always been no-shows, usually one a year.
But this year, A Life Tribute Funeral Care had three unclaimed babies in two months.
In his 43-year funeral career, manager Dean Gunter has never seen so many. His funeral homes in Gulfport and Largo handle indigent cases for the county. He and other funeral directors go to the hospitals, cradle the babies and take them away.
Florida Mortuary, which handles indigent cases for Hillsborough County, sees the same thing.
"Sometimes they're transient people and they move off," said funeral director Ron Mees. "You would think it'd be the other way around with children, that mothers, fathers, grandparents would want to claim them."
If a baby dies after 20 weeks gestation, the law says he must be buried or cremated and given a death certificate. The county will pay if people cannot. It's $157.
Funeral workers try to track down the families. When phone calls don't work, employees from the county's Health and Human Services department show up at houses and talk to neighbors.
"I don't get angry, but it's frustrating," said A Life Tribute funeral director Michele Scalisce. "All we need is for them to come in and fill out the paperwork."
Sometimes, nothing works.
The father who kept making appointments and promising to come.
The quadriplegic Haitian immigrant who came to Florida after the earthquake and didn't speak English.
The mother who surfaced after three weeks who said she was traveling and couldn't make it.
A Life Tribute places the little obituary in the newspaper, hoping it will prod a relative to come forward.
The family has five more days until cremation.
The baby waits.
• • •
MALONEY, Baby Boy
Infant died Thursday, March 4, 2010 at St. Petersburg General Hospital. There are no known survivors.
• • •
Who would do this?
Someone cold? Cruel? Irresponsible? Possibly, and no one attempts to justify it.
But grief is not simple.
"Unless you go through losing a baby, it's a very different loss," said Gwynneth Everington, a nurse at Morton Plant Hospital in Clearwater who runs the hospital's pregnancy loss program. "You never know when you walk into the room what you're going to deal with, what stage they're at. You don't come to a hospital to arrange a funeral for a baby."
Some parents come off the elevator screaming. Some won't say anything. Some want to immediately disassemble the nursery, erase all signs of the child. One relative told a teenager, "Well, you didn't want this baby anyway."
Grief always catches up, Everington said. She follows up with parents to make sure they're grieving, talking about it, eating, sleeping.
One woman broke down during a mammogram when the technician asked about her children — she had lost a baby 25 years earlier. Another came to the hospital after her house burned down, pleading for pictures of her baby.
Three hospice volunteers comfort grieving parents at Bayfront Medical Center, St. Petersburg General and Mease Countryside. When the babies die, they give them lavender baths and dress them in soft clothes that won't rip their thin skin. They photograph the babies and make tiny ink footprints.
They don't cast aspersions.
"Any time we make assumptions with any patient, we're making a big mistake," said Jane Parker, who coordinates the program. "Even if we've spent 30-some hours with this patient, we only know a little bit about their life and who they are and what they've been through."
Patrick O'Neal manages A Life Tribute's care center, where the babies wait. He has two young children.
Part of his job is cremation.
"It's probably one of the hardest parts of our job, caring for a baby that's not been claimed," said O'Neal, 34. "It's much more difficult now that I'm a father. But we're not here to judge people. We've been given the honor and the sacred trust to see that the child is cared for in a dignified manner."
"We just ask ourselves, what if this was my child?"
• • •
AUGUSTINE, Baby Girl
Infant died March 28, 2010 at Bayfront Medical Center. There are no known survivors.
• • •
The baby urns are the size of a water cup. They're white and gold and stark.
You could decorate it with stickers, Cecile Maharne tells parents. Butterflies, maybe.
She is 75, blond, gentle. She answers the phone and arranges funerals. She has seen everything, but the babies weigh heavy.
"I've had a couple miscarriages," she said. "I can't imagine anyone not . . . once you feel that baby move, it's part of you."
The baby ashes sit in a locked closet alongside their grownup counterparts. Scalisce and Maharne continue to seek the parents for four more months.
Eventually, time runs out.
A funeral home worker begins a standard procedure four times a year. He gathers the ashes of the unclaimed and drives a boat alone 3 to 5 miles into the Gulf of Mexico. There are no words, nobody watching.
He records the exact latitude and longitude, so it can be printed on a certificate and delivered to the families. Wherever they are.
He lets the ashes go.
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8857.