A Liturgy for Miscarriages?

On July 17, National Public Radio’s program Fresh Air discussed (listen here) the memoir by Peggy Orenstein entitled, Waiting for Daisy: A Tale of Two Continents, Three Religions, Five Infertility Doctors, an Oscar, an Atomic Bomb, a Romantic Night and One Woman's Quest to Become a Mother. Orenstein’s book is, as the title indicates, about the pursuit of motherhood, and in the interview with Terry Gross, she discussed the physical, psychological, and spiritual ordeal of having multiple miscarriages.

Especially interesting was Orenstein’s discussion of a modern Japanese Buddhist ritual for miscarried, aborted, or stillborn children that she experienced while living in Japan. The ritual is called mizuko kuyô: the word mizuko means either “water child” or “unseeing child.” The ritual involves making an offering to Jizo, a bodhisattva, or enlightened being, who watches over young and unborn children. Here is Orenstein herself on the word mizuko from her 2002 NY Times article:
I had never previously considered that there is no word in English for a miscarried or aborted fetus. In Japanese it is mizuko, which is typically translated as “water child.” Historically, Japanese Buddhists believed that existence flowed into a being slowly, like liquid. Children solidified only gradually over time and weren't considered to be fully in our world until they reached the age of 7. Similarly, leaving this world—returning to the primordial waters—was seen as a process that began at 60 with the celebration of a symbolic second birth. According to Paula K.R. Arai, author of “Women Living Zen” and one of several authorities I later turned to for help in understanding the ritual, the mizuko lies somewhere along the continuum, in that liminal space between life and death but belonging to neither. True to the Buddhist belief in reincarnation, it was expected (and still is today) that Jizo would eventually help the mizuko find another pathway into being. “You’re trying to send the mizuko off, wishing it well in the life that it will have to come,” Arai says. “Because there's always a sense that it will live at another time.
One should note that this ritual is rather controversial. It is a fairly recent addition to Japanese Buddhism, and it is widely rejected by serious centers for Buddhist thought. In a way, the mizuko kuyô is to Buddhism what the “health-and-wealth gospel” of televangelists is to Christianity: it is popular with the masses, used by less scrupulous Buddhist temples to manipulate people into guilt, and is a massive fund-raising machine. According to Buddhist Ethics: A Very Short Introduction, the ritual is rejected by a “majority of Buddhist organizations,” which consider it a “modern innovation based on questionable theology” (98).

That said, for Orenstein, this ritual was very healing. Even though she herself is Jewish by faith, this ritual was a concrete and public way of acknowledging the loss she felt but had great difficulty expressing to others. Like many other women, Orenstein found it very hard to process her experience of having miscarriages. She writes:
There’s little acknowledgment in Western culture of miscarriage, no ritual to cleanse the grief. My own religion, Judaism, despite its meticulous attention to the details of daily life, has traditionally been silent on pregnancy loss—on most matters of pregnancy and childbirth, in fact. (At the urging of female rabbis, the Conservative movement in which I grew up has, for the first time, included prayers to mark miscarriage and some abortions in its most recent rabbis’ manual.) Christianity, too, has largely overlooked miscarriage.

Without form, there is no content. So even in this era of compulsive confession, women don't speak publicly of their loss. It is only if your pregnancy is among the unlucky ones that fail that you begin to hear the stories, spoken in confidence, almost whispered. Your aunt. Your grandmother. Your friends. Your colleagues. Women you have known for years—sometimes your whole life—who have had this happen, sometimes over and over and over again. They tell only if you become one of them.
All of this raises for me the question of a liturgy for miscarriage (not to mention a liturgy for aborted children, comparable to a liturgy for divorce). Like Buddhism, Christianity has what Albert Schweitzer called a “respect for life.” And yet our Western culture finds it very difficult to publicly acknowledge, affirm, and process issues of death and sexuality. The church needs to be the place where people do not simply remain statically bound to their cultural surroundings but instead are able to live in a way shaped radically by the gospel. Being a community of peace is one important facet of this, but it also involves learning how to properly be a community of life. Our American fixation on the issue of abortion has gotten out of hand. Thankfully, people have begun to see that being a communio vitae involves a lot more than politics. It means being a community of peace, healing, justice, and love. Along with that, the church needs to be a place where women can openly acknowledge and share their burdens with others. Rom. 12:15 says, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” Our society has little time and patience for such selfless acts of love toward our neighbors, but this is precisely what it means for us to be the church.

It seems to me, then, that a Christian liturgy for miscarriages is long overdue. Granted, the book on Buddhist ethics mentioned above says that Christians have sought recently to appropriate the mizuko ritual for Western churches, but I could not find anything on this. If someone knows about it, I would be interested in hearing more about what such a liturgy looks like. At the very least, I would like to encourage pastors and other church leaders to make topics like miscarriage open for integration into the life of the church community. (The same should go for women who have abortions, who especially need the comforting embrace of other people; and Christians should be the first to embrace them. See this thoughtful reflection on how the mizuko ritual might instruct Christian churches on the issue of abortion.) Let us learn not only how to rejoice with those who rejoice, but also how to weep with those who weep. Let us not only rejoice with women who become mothers, but also weep with women who lose their dream of motherhood.


Anonymous said…
Have you tried the book 'Human Rites' by Hannah Ward and Jennifer Wild, Mowbray 1995? This includes a couple of liturgies for 'healing after a miscarriage'

ISBN is 0264-67334-4
Anonymous said…
Well said. In my own tradition (Anglicanism) rites for a miscarried child are performed, but generally they're put together by the officiating clergy. So far as I know, there's no 'received' liturgy. There ought to be.
John P. said…
Thanks for the link...I was wondering if you have done [or will have to do] CPE during your time as an Mdiv? My wife is going into her final year at Columbia Theoligical Seminary and is in the midst of a summer long CPE at the largest birthing hospital in Atlanta. With that, comes a lot of miscarriages.

It has been really interesting to see how her reformed theology/liturgy is adapted for the more extreme circumstances of the hospital. For instance, if a grieving couple requests a baptism of an aborted fetus (even if what is being baptized is not recognizable as human) it is difficult to say "No" just because reformed liturgy doesnt necessarily agree.

Perhaps you are right, and a liturgy for miscarriages would be appropriate...though it seems that many of the grieving parents would still desire baptism as well. Either way, I agree in that it is an area where the Church needs to spend more attention.
Anonymous said…
Thank you, David, for this thoughtful, sensitive, and (over-)timely post. Our child Hannah was stillborn 23 years ago, and I will never forget the complacency with which a comment of mine about the need for some urgent theological, pastoral, and liturgical work was met by a prominent member of the United Reformed Church's Health and Healing Committee (UK). I was on the URC's Doctrine and Worship Committee (chaired, incidentally, by Colin Gunton) which produced our (1989) Service Book. In the appendix to the Funeral Service it included prayers "At the Funeral of a Still-Born Child", but though I was personally only responsible for producing the draft of the Wedding Service (which we tried to bring into the real world of post-patriarchy and divorce), I regret that we - I - were not more insistent about a more comprehensive approach to still-birth, while miscarriage was not even on our radar screen. Alas, in the URC's most recent liturgical efforts (2003, 2004), there is nothing about even stillbirth, in spite of the fact that the Church of Scotland's (1994, 1996) Book of Common Order has a specific "Order for the Funeral of a Still-born Child". But again, nothing about miscarriage. "Anonymous" mentions Human Rites, which contains resources not only for miscarriage, but also for stillbirth, abortion, and the death of a child. Not surprisingly, it took two women to compile this pioneering collection - and it is now twelve years old.

Pastorally, of course, there has been a dawning enlightenment about the needs of those who, expecting new life, experience death - and the distinctive needs of mothers and fathers, but there is still a lot of work to do, particularly given an individualistic culture that privatises death, and a therapeutic culture that pathologises grief. Romans 12:15 indeed. May our churches be places of conversation, tongue-tied by premature death though we may be, as well as candour, for otherwise we will not be places of rebirth.
Anonymous said…
Just a quick question: do other traditions (nonAnglican ones) allow baptism of dead people (john p.'s "if a couple requests baptism of an aborted fetus"). I've been in situations of baptizing infants for whom, almost immediately, I'm praying the office for the dead. And I've asked doctors to hold off pronouncing death until I could baptise (granted, stretching a point to console grieving parents). But baptising an aborted fetus?
John P. said…
I would clarify that i meant to say miscarried (not aborted)...although I know that both do happen.

The difficulty, from what I can glean from my wife's experience, is that sometimes the chaplain on call may not even be privy to the full circumstances under which the miscarriage occurred at the time he or she is called in to minister.

With regards to Kerry's question:

I agree that with an aborted fetus the issue seems a good bit more difficult...though Im not convinced that a chaplain would be condemnable for consoling such a person in like manner as they would one who miscarried.

I cannot speak for other traditions; my wife (PCUSA) has actually not performed a baptism during her time as a chaplain...though she did perform a blessing for a mother who just had a miscarriage early in her pregnancy (in which the circumstances of the miscarriage were kept somewhat ambiguous by the medical staff).

In the end, i would encourage you to talk with any full time hospital chaplain about the matter. They are the ones who are called upon in the moment.

I think a crucial distinction here may be the times in which a family has no outside pastor/priest to sit and minister to them through the grief with specific rites and liturgy and a person/family relies on the presence of a chaplain. It seems to me that chaplains [be they hospital or military] are almost forced into a position of doing some theological and liturgical gymnastics...given the often extreme and impromptu circumstances in which they are called to minister.
Anonymous said…
Few in our society treat miscarriage as the serious, traumatic event that it is. Sadly, that includes many doctors. I know this from personal experience. I suffered one preterm birth and lost 4 children before being diagnosed with two treatable disorders. Women like me have one burning question: Why wasn't I diagnosed earlier? It turns out that medical guidelines do not require doctors to test for causes of loss, but say they can consider testing after multiple miscarriages. I've written my personal story in a recently published book, "To Full Term, A Mother's Truimph Over Miscarriage." I've also founded a nonprofit, PreventPregnancyLoss.org, which urges families to seek testing after loss, and to seek help healing after this devastating event. Peace to you all. Darci Klein.