Every year in the US hundreds of dead children and babies are abandoned, thrown away like rubbish. And when their discarded, unwanted bodies are found or left unclaimed, they're buried in an unmarked, paupers grave. Forgotten. Until a remarkable woman named Elissa Davey stepped in. Here's why, for the last two decades, she has dedicated her life to holding special burials for these poor abandoned angels...
A single rose was clasped in her hands, her blonde hair woven with lavender flowers. Wearing a long, white dress, the 3-year-old’s skin, visible through the windows of her sealed casket, was perfectly preserved. It was clear the girl had been much loved, mourned deeply after she was carefully laid to rest in San Francisco’s Old Fellows Cemetery 145 years earlier.
Only, in the 1920s, redevelopment meant 30,000 bodies were relocated and, somehow, the nameless little girl was left behind. Her lead and bronze coffin was discovered in May 2016 by construction workers remodelling Ericka Karner’s childhood home in San Francisco.
But the city refused to take custody of the little girl, named Miranda by Ericka’s daughters.
Ericka, staying 800 miles away while her home was remodelled, couldn’t bear to think of poor Miranda lying alone in her back garden. Then someone put her in touch with a remarkable woman named Elissa Davey, 68.
Elissa, of Carlsbad, California, immediately agreed to help. Because it turned out she’d dedicated the past 17 years to giving lost children like Miranda a final resting place. It was called the Garden of Innocence, and it’d all started back in 1999…
‘A baby had been found chucked in a rubbish bin on a student campus,’ says Elissa. ‘The story haunted me.’
The coroner told her that if no-one claimed the baby, he’d be buried in an unmarked grave.
Horrified, Elissa sprang into action. She learned she could claim the unknown baby as long as she had a dignified place to put him.
‘The Garden of Innocence was born,’ smiles Elissa.
Elissa found a patch of land in a local memorial park in San Diego, which was kindly donated. Then she and a team of volunteers raised the $16,000 (£12,000) needed for the opening and closing of graves. The poor baby that’d inspired the garden had already been buried. But, all too soon, another baby was in need of a loving, dignified goodbye.
‘He’d been dumped in a bin, too,’ says Elissa sadly.
She and her caring volunteers claimed him, laid him to rest, and they haven’t stopped since. Abandoned or unidentified children are rescued from the rubbish, the roadside, the sewer, or from mortuaries where parents who can’t afford funeral costs have abandoned them.
‘They deserve better,’ says Elissa.
So they’re claimed, named and buried with dignity. ‘And we don’t just bury babies, we help people. Attending our services, giving love to these children who had no-one to care helps people deal with their own trauma and loss,’ says Elissa.
Over the years, 11 gardens have been established in California, with 12 across the United States so far. The non-profit organisation is now looking to expand in different countries.
‘We hope to open one in the UK,’ says Elissa. ‘We just need legal clearance and volunteers.’
Within hours of Ericka Karner’s phone call, Elissa had secured the funds needed to have Miranda’s coffin picked up.
‘That girl was somebody’s child,’ says Elissa. ‘Just by looking at the way they dressed her, their sorrow was great. We will love her, too.’
When Miranda was buried in June, she became the 328th angel Elissa had saved. Thanks to Elissa and her dedicated volunteers, Miranda and hundreds like her, are cared for, mourned. Remembered.
A last act of love
In February 2003, a dead baby girl was abandoned at a hospital in San Diego.
Collecting her, Elissa noticed her perfect, tiny round toes. The baby, named Jeanette, was buried in the garden. Then, 18 months on, Laura Johnson called Elissa. She’d adopted a boy – Keegan – who’d been a twin and the medical examiner thought Elissa could help her find out about the other baby. Keegan’s date of birth matched Jeanette’s – and he’d had the same cute little toes.
At the next Garden of Innocence service, Keegan, his parents and grandparents laid a flower at Jeanette’s headstone. In a letter to the Garden, Keegan’s grandmother wrote, ‘[My daughter] is relieved to know that a kind and loving person handled this last act of love.’
A heartfelt farewell…
When the Garden of Innocence claims a child, the first thing they do is give them a name. Then they’re tucked in a coffin or urn – handmade by volunteer woodworkers worldwide – with a handmade blanket, a toy and a specially written poem. They’re given a full memorial service, attended by hundreds of strangers, with a colour guard to escort them to the garden.