For families who must endure the heartbreaking experience of losing a child prematurely, closure is needed but can be difficult to achieve when the means for a burial service are not always financially available.
More than 20 years ago, Mount Carmel Cemetery set out to create a safe, sacred space for families to lay their children to rest and gain closure at no cost to them. The Garden of Angels was established in the heart of the Paducah cemetery, serving as a dedicated space for babies who have died from conception to the first few months of life.
With over 500 in the garden to date, Jim Sanders, chairman of Mount Carmel Cemetery, said an expansion is needed to provide additional space.
"Our current Garden of Angels is not adequate to fulfill our mission," Sanders said. "We lack the appropriate space, and we do not have a fitting tribute to these young children of God."
Looking to dedicate the new garden this fall, the cemetery is reaching out to local churches, hospitals and organizations for donations.
The cemetery has already received generous financial support from Lourdes hospital and Baptist Health Paducah of $94,000 and is now about $25,000 away from its goal, he said.
Mount Carmel Cemetery is the only cemetery in the region that offers these services.
"Regardless of religious denomination or background, these babies are taken in and given a resting place, free of charge to the family, by the cemetery," he said. "This is open to all of God's children."
Sanders said 40 percent of the babies buried in the Garden of Angels were not named, and for this reason, the cemetery does not require information to provide a burial for the child.
Since working at the cemetery, Sanders said he has seen and heard many stories that express what the young lives meant to their families.
The grandmother of a boy named Xavier who is buried in the garden wrote a letter to the cemetery to express appreciation of the services offered to her family during a time of confusion and mourning, he said.
In her letter, she goes on to express the deep sadness felt when the family lost a son and grandson just 4 months old in 2016. "At the hospital, we were told about the Garden of Angels and how they provided space in Mount Carmel Cemetery, along with a casket and funeral service at no cost to our family," she wrote. "You never get over losing a baby. But it is wonderful to have a beautiful and peaceful place to visit our grandson."
Joel Jackson, associate chaplain at Baptist Health, has often held services for families who have had the misfortune of losing a baby prematurely. He said the name Garden of Angels is appropriate because that's truly what it is.
"The families get a sense of closure and that helps them emotionally, physically and spiritually as well," Jackson said. "Any church or organization that would want to give their money would be truly blessed because they would be helping people at a very tough moment in their lives. There's nothing like losing a child."
Sister Lucy Bonifas worked at Lourdes for nearly 50 years, including the year that the Garden of Angels was initially established at Mount Carmel Cemetery.
Since losing a baby is such a traumatic experience, Bonifas said, she met many people who could not stand to endure a burial service for their unborn child.
"I had one mother who called me when the anniversary date was coming up, and she wanted to know where the little one was buried," Bonifas said. "She came from over 100 miles away to visit. It's a big comfort for these parents."
For additional information about the Garden of Angels or to make a donation, call Sanders at 270-534-5540.