The truth about our son - 40 years later

Officials misled scores of parents over stillborn infants’ burials


By Jessica Elgot, October 6, 2011
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The area at Bushey Cemetery, set aside for early-death or stillborn babies. Some now have new headstones

The area at Bushey Cemetery, set aside for early-death or stillborn babies. Some now have new headstones

Susan Bergson never knew her baby boy.

He died in distress after an emergency Caesarian at a London hospital, 40 years ago. Immediately, he was taken away while her husband sought the advice of the United Synagogue on how to bury the body.

He was stunned to be told that the baby would have to be buried with the body of an anonymous, newly-deceased mother.

The child would have to be buried secretly and the parents could not know its location.

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For nearly 40 years Allen and Susan Bergson had no idea where their son, whom they named Edward, was laid to rest. They had no grave to visit and no place to contemplate their loss.

It took another private tragedy for them to learn what had actually happened. When their daughter also gave birth to a stillborn child, in June this year, their grandchild was given a burial with a rabbi in attendance.

The Bergsons wondered why they had been told all those years ago that this was not permitted under Jewish law.

And in asking that question, they stumbled upon a truth they could not have imagined.

Nothing of what they had been told by the US when Edward died had been true. And they were just two among many parents who had also been misled.

Last week they were finally able to erect a headstone on a grave in Bushey Cemetery, only a few miles from their home in Pinner. The tiny plot had been lost among dozens of other similarly unmarked baby graves.

The United Synagogue has apologised and is investigating why parents were told their babies would be buried with unknown mothers, and why the location was kept from them.

No part of Jewish law requires a stillborn or foetus from a miscarriage to be buried with a mother. Members of the US and Federation Burial Societies have confirmed it was common practice in the very early 20th century, but never as late as the 1970s.

Mr Bergson said he knew three other couples had the same experience, one just 25 years ago. There are many more.

He recalled the day of his son's death, and his encounter with US authorities. "When I got there, it was just before 1pm. The chap said they were off to lunch and so I waited an hour there. The man came back and asked me what I came for. I said: 'We lost our baby.' And he said: 'Where is it?'

"And I told him, 'Hillingdon' and he said, 'What a schlep that is.'

"He said he couldn't tell me where he was going to be buried, but he said: 'It's [the burial] with a woman. We don't give out that information if the baby is under 30 days old.'

"We have three sets of friends who were in the same situation, all told the same thing. It was a standard thing. Every one of our generation says the same. It happened as recently as 25 years ago.

"When it's a complete and utter lie, it's shocking. I was disgusted with them at the time, there was no kindness. It was a job. It was easier for them to say nothing.

"And then they just buried them in Bushey, in a little plot, and shoved a spoke in to mark it. After my daughter lost her baby this year, I emailed the US enquiring about our son, and in just two hours a note came back with the exact location. They were suprised we didn't know. I expected to be fobbed off but it was so simple".

"We went down to Bushey Cemetery and there were 100-odd graves, around 10 with stones on. The rest are numbered, with rusty metal markers.

"When we went back there over Yomtov, we saw that there are about 20 gravestones now. People must be finding out about their own children.

"I've put a stone up. Other people need to know, they will want to do this."

Another mother, who asked not to be named, said she had a stillbirth in 1971, and her husband was told the same story as the Bergsons.

"The hospital said they would incinerate the body, but we said 'you can't do that, we are Jewish.' So when my husband went to the US, we were told that the baby was buried with a mother, in the same grave, we could not be told where it was, and that was the end.

"That was extremely difficult. My mother-in-law had died a few weeks earlier, and we thought maybe the baby could be buried with her, if it had to be with a mother. They said no. It will be buried with a Jewish mother, but we can't tell you where.

"Nine years later, I was helping similar couples with bereavement. I rang the US to check what now happens to babies and I told them my bad experience. The woman said: 'I don't know how to tell you this, but you have been told a pack of lies.' She said: 'Do you want to know where your baby is?' You cannot imagine how I felt. I had to sit down. I am shivering now just thinking about it.

"We were allowed to lay a little square stone, but not allowed to give a name. They said because he was under 30 days old, he didn't count. And I said: 'Well, it counted to us.'

"He was a full-term, eight pounds, little boy. He was our baby. He would have been 40 this year. Not having a grave is the worst thing. You are grieving so much and you just need somewhere to go.

"Jewish law is not good with death, there's no compassion for people. You get over the anger about what you were told, but the pain never, ever, goes away."

US chief executive Jeremy Jacobs offered his "most profound sympathy to the families who have been affected by this error. It's not yet clear how exactly these families were led to believe that their children would not have their own grave.

"I can assure them that we are doing everything we can to determine how this misunderstanding occurred.

"Before the Second World War, when stillborn babies were unfortunately much more frequent, it was common practice for them to be buried with another body.

"More recently, a stillborn child has been treated in much the same way as the tragic loss of any relative, with their own grave and a headstone if the family so wish."

Melvyn Hartog, head of the US Burial Society, said babies would never have been buried in the graves of unknown mothers in Bushey Cemetery, which opened in 1948, but the practice had happened in older cemeteries.

Last updated: 10:58pm, October 6 2011