Paper on Pastoral Care for Those Grieving the Death of a Stillborn

Liturgy as Instrument of Pastoral Care: Burial for a Stillborn Child or Unbaptized Child

Undoubtedly, the death of a child in the womb must be one of life’s most gut-wrenching tragedies. When this happens, a pastor must be diligent in his use of God’s Word and the Lord’s Supper in caring for his grieving people. The rite of “Burial for a Stillborn Child or Unbaptized Child” in Lutheran Service Book: Agenda is foundational to the cure of mourning souls even outside the funeral service itself. Its prayers, Scripture readings, and resurrection proclamations guide a pastor in his care for people at all stages of their bereavement.

Martin Luther wrote a short work that sheds light on the issue of pastoral care to those who mourn the death of a stillborn child.[1] Although Luther lauded baptism as the great treasure that it is, he acknowledged that it is possible for an unbaptized child to be saved by the same undeserved grace of God given in baptism. The death of the unborn is not a sign of God’s anger or judgment against the parents. The Holy Spirit sanctifies stillborn children on the basis of the unspoken prayers of the mother[2], the prayers of the Christian congregation, and His eternal election of that child unto salvation. Thus, only a Christian mother can be assured that the soul of her deceased child is in heaven. Luther adds that the Christian mother of a stillborn should be confident that her desire to bring her child to be baptized will be accepted by God and made effective by Him. He points to Christ’s resurrecting the son of the widow of Nain and His exorcising a demon from the daughter of the Canaanite woman as examples of miracles performed on the basis of the faith of the mothers apart from the faith of their children. Luther’s main point is that one should not let go of God’s promises in spite of how difficult the circumstance might be.[3] These considerations are crucial to pastoral cure of souls in this heartbreaking situation.

The Rite of Burial for a Stillborn Child or Unbaptized Child

Every Christian funeral or burial service is based only upon what those gathered hear. This applies no less in the case of a stillborn. God’s promises to all of His children, but especially to the deceased, are the focus of the service. The stillborn is not to be refused a Christian funeral service, for, as is the case with all funerals, the deceased might have been an unbeliever. Only God knows the individual’s heart. However, the deceased Christian is always assumed to have been a believer on the basis of God’s grace given to him in baptism and his outward confession in this life. Obviously, this is not as apparent in the case of a stillborn. The first element of the rite is the invocation of the name of the Triune God, the same name that would have been placed upon the stillborn in baptism. Thus, the rite begins like any other Christian service. Those gathered will be blessed with the Gospel message of Christ’s death and resurrection.

The pastor speaks an extended consolation to those grieving the baby’s death. His words testify to the reality that God’s will sometimes “allows our anticipation and joy to be changed into disappointment and grief.” What at first might seem insulting, if not altogether untrue, is in reality a message of comfort. God is in control of the situation. His unsearchable will was done. There is no room for Deism here. God is active in both blessing and testing His people. By the Gospel, God calls those gathered to a faith that will withstand such times of testing. As impossible as it might seem, the excruciating loss felt especially by the parents is somehow for their good. They will not be given more to endure than they can handle.

The Trinitarian confession continues in that although the grieving recognize that they do not have answers to all of life’s questions, they know that God is their “loving Father,” their “Brother in suffering and death,” and the “Comforter who even now brings peace” to their grief-stricken hearts. They know this only on account of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Here is the objective source of all legitimate comfort. Pastors work with what gives certainty. They do not throw the hidden God at their people. Only the revealed God, the Lord Jesus Christ, calms the troubled breast.

Along the lines of Luther’s address to women who have had miscarriages, the opening consolation recognizes that the child was prayed for and commended to Christ while alive in the womb. This should encourage prayer for all unborn children in all Christian congregations throughout the world. “We should not doubt that these prayers have been heard, for we have God’s own kind and comforting promises that such prayers in the name of Jesus Christ are heard by Him.” Once again, there is an objective basis for comfort rooted in God’s promises. Although the child was not baptized, the power of baptism is recognized, and the grieving are exhorted to trust that God has received the stillborn child in His mercy and for the sake of Christ’s death and resurrection. The extended consolation ends with the confident confession that the stillborn will be raised to life with Christ on the Last Day. Those gathered are admonished to remain steadfast in the Word and faith until they too come to the joys of everlasting life.[4] The interrelated themes of comfort in Christ’s work and the hope of heaven have been set forth as the purpose of the rite.

God’s comforting promises in His Word are the foundation of the rite. The pastor has eleven pericopes to choose from, and there are certainly other appropriate readings that could be added to these. Psalm 139 acknowledges that the stillborn is God’s creation, one whom He knit together in his mother’s womb. Like any funeral, the gift of life that the deceased once enjoyed is celebrated. It may have been short-lived, but the deceased infant did have life as a gift from his Creator. After all, whose life is not short-lived when compared to the vastness of eternity? Related to the efficacy of the prayers for the child is the idea that God looked upon the child in loving care even while he was still being formed in his mother’s womb. Each day of life, written in God’s book,[5] is a gift that He has planned out from eternity. The Gloria Patri that concludes the three psalms once again reminds those gathered of their baptism and the Triune name that would have been placed upon the stillborn in his baptism.

The Gospel is proclaimed anew in Psalm 23. The Lord’s sheep have no need that He cannot provide for. God’s people can take comfort in His presence even in the midst of death. Although the stillborn never ate and drank the Good Shepherd’s body and blood in the Lord’s Supper, he will partake of the marriage feast of the Lamb and His bride which has no end. His Lord will prepare a table before him, and he will dwell in the Lord’s house forever.

Psalm 130 is the cry of the grieving parents and other relatives and friends. They plead for the Lord to hear their cries for mercy. They recognize that forgiveness is found only in Him. They place their hope in the Lord’s “steadfast love” and “plentiful redemption,” trusting that the stillborn child is in heaven. God has redeemed all people through Christ. For now, the souls of those gathered in mourning and hope must wait for the Lord.

In Jeremiah 31:15-17 the Lord proclaims that weeping should cease because the captives (or deceased) will come back from the land of the enemy. Here is the glorious promise of the resurrection of the body in which the stillborn will “come back to their own country,” the New Jerusalem. In Job 1:21 the Lord is acknowledged as the Giver of life who alone can take it away. He controls the destinies of all people. Job is not afraid to confess the harsh reality that he is dust (naked from his mother’s womb) and to dust he will return (naked in the grave).

Paul posits a rhetorical question: “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31). Not even sin, death, and the devil combined can take God’s children away from Him. Paul writes that God gave His Son to die for all. No one can bring a charge of condemnation against God’s elect. Not even a death in the womb can prevent the elect stillborn from eternal life with his God. In Romans 14:7-9 Paul writes that humans are not autonomous creatures. They are the Lord’s whether they live or die. Christ died and was raised from the dead in order that He might be Lord of both the living and the dead. He is Lord of the stillborn and all those who grieve his death. Revelation 21:1-7 presents the eternal glory that all Christians hope for. There will be no tears, death, mourning, crying, or pain in heaven. This is quite the opposite of the vale of tears in which the grieving now live out their days.

Jesus’ attitude toward children is very comforting. He said in Matthew 18 that one cannot enter the kingdom of heaven unless he has faith like a little child. God’s people are not to despise any of the little ones entrusted to their care, for whoever receives a child in Jesus’ name also receives Him. Once again, prayers for the unborn and reading Scripture to them are important in utero activities. In addition, little children have angels in heaven who watch over them. In Mark 10 Jesus said that God’s kingdom belongs to little children, and He took children in His arms and blessed them. He does the same to the stillborn commended to His care. Jesus said in Matthew 11 that God has revealed the things of salvation to little children, those who stand totally passive before Him in terms of their redemption. Jesus offers Himself as rest to all who are heavy laden. He shoulders all of His people’s sorrows, much like He took the sins of the whole world upon Himself on the cross.

After the pastor provides further words of consolation, the rite ends in prayer. The prayer recognizes once again that Jesus bore our griefs and carried all our sorrows. The pastor prays that the faith of the grieving parents might be strengthened and that they might rely on God’s mercy in trusting that their little one who has been gathered[6] into His loving arms will rise on the Last Day. The pastor then invokes the name of the Triune God, asking that He would keep the remains of the stillborn until the day of the resurrection of all flesh. The Lord’s Prayer follows. The Third, Fourth, and Seventh Petitions are especially pertinent to the situation. By faith, the mourners pray that God’s will be done, even in the midst of such tragedy. They pray for daily bread, which includes the blessing of children. They pray for deliverance from the evil one who would take away every one of God’s blessings if he was able. The benediction follows, and the service ends with the pronouncement of God’s peace upon those gathered.

The Rite of Committal for a Stillborn Child or Unbaptized Child

This rite follows the funeral or burial service, and it provides further pastoral care at the time of the actual interment. The rite begins with a fourteenth century hymn that is reminiscent of David’s penitential prayer in Psalm 51. It is a cry of both desperation and hope. Those gathered confess that they are dead in their sins in the very midst of life. Even though the Lord is justly angered by their sins, from Him alone can they seek help. They ask that the Lord would not deliver them into the bitterness of eternal death. They pray that God would not shut His ears to their prayers even though He knows the evil secrets of their hearts. The hymn is very appropriate for the mournful reality of the stillborn’s death in that it reminds those gathered of their own impending deaths and of the certain hope that they, like the stillborn, will be saved from eternal death.

The prayer that follows acknowledges that Jesus made the graves of all His children holy by His own three-day rest in the tomb, promising resurrection to their mortal bodies. The grave is blessed, and the pastor asks that God would grant the stillborn’s body to sleep in peace until he is awakened to glory with the rest of God’s people. This prayer is perhaps the most comforting non-Scriptural portion of either rite. St. Paul offers words of comfort concerning the resurrection of the dead in 1 Corinthians 15. A stillborn child is the epitome of things perishable, dishonorable, and weak. However, in the resurrection he will be raised imperishable, glorified, and powerful. Then death will be swallowed up in the victory of Christ’s resurrection.

The pastor makes a bold statement: “It pleased our heavenly Father in His wise providence to call this child to Himself.” What is foolish to the world is really the wisdom of God. Although this child died, God still cared for him from his first to his last breath. Now the child’s soul is with its Maker. The fleeting nature of life is presented: “earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” The comforting words of the “sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life” are proclaimed. Even the body of this stillborn child will have a body like Christ’s glorious body in eternity.

Christ’s death destroyed death and redeemed God’s “little ones.” Christ’s bodily resurrection brings peace and hope to all who die in Him. Christ is the Resurrection and the Life. The everlasting communion of saints who await the bodily resurrection is mentioned in the closing prayer. Thus, the mourners are united with the stillborn. This will be proclaimed week after week in the Proper Preface, Sanctus, and at the Lord’s Supper itself. The proclamation of the Easter season follows the singing of an appropriate hymn. The congregation confesses, “Alleluia! Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluia!” Once again, the resurrection of the body is proclaimed. The mourners go forth in peace in the Lord’s name, having been blessed by the pastor.

[1] See “For Women Who Have Had a Miscarriage” (AE 43:247-250).
[2] David also entrusted his unborn son to the Lord after he found out that he would not live for very long after birth. David prayed to the Lord on his son’s behalf (2 Samuel 12:16) and confessed that he would one day go to the place where his newborn son would go before him (2 Samuel 12:23).
[3] Luther’s focus was more on the words of promise that God will deliver those who call upon Him in the day of trouble than on the fact that the unborn (such as John the Baptist) can believe.
[4] These words are reminiscent of Luther’s explanation of the Third Petition of the Lord’s Prayer in the Small Catechism.
[5] One cannot help but think of the “Book of Life” which Paul and John write about in Philippians and Revelation.
[6] Note the certainty with which the pastor speaks about the stillborn’s eternal salvation.


Erich Heidenreich, DDS said...

Excellent post, Matt. My wife, children, and I have suffered the loss of two babies at the end of the first trimester in two separate pregnancies. I can tell you that the comfort our pastor gave us was very needed, especially in light of the cruel message given to my wife and I by the medical community that each of these two precious children of God were just "a mass of cells." We knew better because of the sorrow in our hearts.

Thank you.

Because this post does not deal directly with contraception, yet seems inextricably linked to the subject somehow, it has made me wonder if we should change the name of our blog to "Lutherans and Procreation." That goes to the point of my "Procreation Euphemisms" post. To be pro-life means to be fully "procreative."

Just a thought...

The Unknown Lutheran said...

Or Lutherans against the Culture of Death?

Matt said...

I like the idea of a change to "Lutherans and Procreation."

Christopher said...

I also like that name change.

As far as use of the law goes, I think it best summarized by Erich in his post "Be Fruitful and Multiply: Command or Blessing?" which adequately describes this blessing and the aspect of the law in regards to it.

Christopher said...

Matt, interestingly enough I did my Pastoral Theology Paper last quarter on the same topic.

Anonymous said...

The name change to Lutherans and Procreation sounds good.

M. L. F. Freiberg Sr.