On a quiet street in a senior living development in northeast Fresno, three women in their 80s are hard at work making burial gowns for the youngest and smallest among us.
The dresses are given to Hinds Hospice, which distributes them to grieving families for children who are born premature or medically fragile and die shortly after birth, or for those who had a stillborn baby.
A lot of love is poured into these delicate creations – by the volunteer seamstresses and those donating the fabric. The burial gowns were once wedding, bridesmaid and quinceañera dresses.
Merry Derrick, Peggie Morgan and Antonia Rhodes, along with Rhodes’ daughter, Becky Rowe, have made more than 200 of these small dresses since they started their work a few months ago.
Rowe gets chills collecting donated wedding dresses.
“Tears would stream down my face,” Rowe says. “I got so emotional every time – and I still do, every time. I just felt God was calling me to do something good for someone.”
Inspired by a story about women in Texas who make infant burial gowns, the Fresno group started doing the same without knowing who would receive their gifts. Then Morgan learned women with the Athena Philoptochos Society of St. George Greek Orthodox Church were also making these dresses and donating them to the Hinds Hospice Angel Babies program, which serves families in Fresno, Madera and Merced counties.
The women joined forces and, collectively, have made more than 425 infant gowns for the program. They also make cloth diapers and envelopes that can be used to hold hospital paperwork and death certificates, and knit baby blankets and caps – many just the size of a lemon or egg. Rhodes knit 250 of these hats in three weeks.
Every piece is a unique and beautiful creation. Derrick, a retired potter, likes to paint things like teddy bears and animals on many of the dresses. Morgan recently made a boy’s gown that has a vest adorned with tiny military medals.
The first delivery to Hinds Hospice was in March. Angel Babies helps around 35 families a month, says its program director Kathy Cromwell. Since Angel Babies began in 2001, it’s helped grieving families cope with the deaths of around 3,800 babies.
Hinds Hospice stresses the importance of providing “dignity at the end of life,” Cromwell says, and the handmade burial dresses help with that. It’s important that the babies “get to wear something that’s so beautiful, because they are so beautiful.”
Elaine Sotiropulos with St. George also got the idea for making gowns from the story of the Texas volunteers.
“A wedding gown is such a symbol of beauty, and to take something that is used in one way and is beautiful and to repurpose it into another beautiful use … the giver receives a lot of that warmth and love,” Sotiropulos says. “It’s different than just buying fabric.”
Amber Sweilem, 23, of Fresno donated her dress shortly after her July wedding.
“Since I was a little girl I dreamed of my wedding – especially my wedding dress. But after my wedding, I wasn’t going to need it anymore. I know a lot of people have them dry-cleaned and put in boxes and hung on walls, but that just never seemed like an option to me. I’d rather something that meant so much to me go toward a good cause, and I couldn’t think of anything better.”
Typically, around 15 burial gowns can be made from each wedding dress, but one recently yielded enough material to make 35.
Morgan received one wedding dress that belonged to a woman who was married in 1945. She died recently in a center for people with Alzheimer’s disease. Her daughter found the dress while cleaning out her mother’s apartment.
“This is made just from lace, most of it disintegrated, but I was able to salvage this,” Morgan says, holding up a burial gown at Rhodes’ home.
She shared a photo of the dress with the daughter.
“She wept and wept and wept. Her mother had 10 miscarriages before she was born and she said, ‘One of my siblings could have worn this.’ So, that’s why I do it.”
The gowns also save grieving families from shopping for a dead child, says Cindi Boukidis with St. George.
“It’s not easy to bury a child, and the last thing you want to do is go shopping for something when you can’t find something this size – and you don’t want some doll dress.”
The Angel Babies gowns are special because they are “lovingly and prayerfully made,” Boukidis says.
“Being a newlywed, having children someday is something me and my husband both look forward to, and I can’t even imagine what it would be like to be one of those mothers who had lost their child. … I just hope it brings them a sense of closure.
“Nothing of course can ever fill that hole that I’m sure they feel from losing a child, but at least knowing that their baby was clothed in something that was made out of love … maybe it would bring them some sense of relief.”
How to help
Dresses can be dropped off at St. George Greek Orthodox Church, 2219 N. Orchard St., Fresno. Volunteers make burial gowns, caps, blankets, and cloth diapers and envelopes at their homes and during work parties at the church. The next group workday will be from 2 to 8 p.m. Jan. 25. Volunteers normally gather the last Monday of each month. Around 75 people have helped with this project. Those with questions can call the church at 559-233-0397 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Angel Babies of Hinds Hospice
People in the central San Joaquin Valley who have experienced the death of a baby in infancy or pregnancy can get emotional support from the Angel Babies of Hinds Hospice program by calling 559-248-8579, emailing email@example.com or stopping by the office at 2490 W. Shaw Ave., Fresno.