When a friend posted on Facebook that she was going to sew an angel gown for a newborn infant who would be laid to rest soon, it touched her. Angel gowns are little frocks designed specifically for this rather tragically moving purpose—they are buried with stillborn babies or those who came into the world prematurely and were lost very shortly after childbirth. The frocks are pretty and give the occasion a sense of formality, and they ease parents’ bereavement while providing dignity for their child.
Across the country, services that make the garments are making them available to hospitals and funeral homes to be given to grieving families free of charge. The dresses are often repurposed wedding dresses, but can be made from other dress wear as well. They are sometimes accompanied by a thoughtfully filled memory box. These are given to parents and nurses in the hospital and also directly to families so that they can hold on to a small piece of their child’s life that was tragically cut short.
For the volunteers at these services, sewing angel gowns is a labor of love that keeps them uplifted in the face of such a sad and difficult task. Many have been bereaved themselves, and for them, the work helps them to heal. They do it as a way to pay tribute to their own loved ones who have passed away and to give hope to other families facing this tragedy.
The women who make the gowns are often retired, and many of them are members of their local church. Judi Hauer, who started the Minnesota-based program called Angel Dresses, explains that her grandson was stillborn, and when she saw how the infants were typically dressed in ratty blankets, she wanted to start an organization that could provide a gown and other items to honor their little lives.
The outfits are sewed by volunteer seamstresses, who sew them in their spare time. They also are busy with other community service projects and work at their own businesses or in volunteer positions. At Waterfront Studio, for example, Fleury and her students host a camp for aspiring artists and also make coloring books to melt down old crayons. The seamstresses’ children and grandchildren also get in on the act.
Many of the organizations that make these gowns also have an international program, where a bride can donate her dress to a developing country (Guatemala is currently the location) and virtually meet the seamstress who will sew it. The dresses can be sent to that country or returned to the states, so that donors can choose how their gowns will be used.
Pregnancy and infant loss are taboo subjects in our society, but the women who run these programs say that sewing these outfits helps to bring the subject out of the shadows and give families a chance to celebrate their children’s brief lives. They are a reminder that every life is precious, even when it is too short.