Too many years ago to count, I received an email and pictures from a college friend. Suzy sent me pictures of 7 shirt-sized boxes, neatly stacked on her dining room table. She began the email by saying, “The FedEx man just delivered my wedding dress.” Now that gets your attention!
Suzy’s daughters had recently gotten married. In spite of her deepest hopes, neither daughter wanted to wear her wedding gown, nor use her veil. Not wanting to keep her dress, but knowing someone, somewhere, somehow could make great use from it, Suzy set out on a mission: What would be the best way to repurpose her wedding dress?
After researching, Suzy learned a distant cousin repurposed wedding dresses as burial, or bereavement, gowns for infants never leaving the hospital. Suzy and her husband struggled with infertility and miscarriages before two successful pregnancies, so she decided this would be a poignant way to repurpose her wedding dress into needed, useful and beautiful garments.
I tucked that idea away for quite some time.
In early 2018, I was asked to be on Johnson City’s Sesquicentennial Commission. I encouraged various groups I was (and still am) a part of to do something significant in regard to 150. Our book club donated 150 toothbrushes to Niswonger Children’s Hospital for parents to use when their children were patients. Supplemented by my Rotary Club, we also donated 150 new or gently used books to a local pediatrician’s office.
But 150 infant bereavement gowns? Questions abounded! Our book club was definitely interested; Jeanne Prud’homme, one of our members, is a professional seamstress. She would do the work gratis! I called Lisa Carter, CEO of Niswonger Children’s Hospital, and explained the situation. Could she use infant bereavement gowns? Approximately how many infants did Niswonger lose every year? Lisa was thrilled we would consider this gift; they loose between 12 and 15 infants every year. 150 gowns would be a decade-long supply. This wouldn’t be practical or feasible, so we improvised and decided to donate 15 – one for every decade of our city’s existence. We had a plan! Now to get the wedding gowns! Jeanne told us to also collect pastel prom dresses and evening gowns. We were armed with knowledge!
Soon after this, two good friends, Carol Dubay and Cheri Bunker-Forney, and I took a road trip to Alabama. On the way, we spied a sign alerting us to the Unclaimed Luggage Center in nearby Scottsboro. Immediately we had an unplanned, but delightful, detour. If you’ve never been there…..it’s worth the trip!
While Carol and Cheri browsed the store, I made a beeline to the formals and wedding dresses. Soon I had my hands on the biggest, frilliest, fluffiest laciest wedding gown ever! And it was only $49.99! As I checked out, the cashier asked when I was getting married. I recounted my story. She said, “Wait a minute. Let me get my manager. I’m pretty sure we can give you a discount.” I repeated my story to the manager, and walked out with a $49.99 wedding dress for $25, plus tax. We were on our way to 15 baby bereavement gowns!
The next several months saw book club members scrounging garage sales, attics, neighbor’s garages, and online sales. I bought 2 pastel formals at the Junior League’s Provisional Bag-a-Bargain sale; Teresa Bowman donated her daughter’s 8th grade graduation dress to the cause. Others made similar contributions. Jeanne had plenty of gowns to repurpose.
As Jeanne was busy designing and sewing the gowns, we were deciding what book to read to best portray our feelings for what we were doing. After some research, we decided to read The Funeral Dress, Susan Gregg Gilmore’s fabulous debut novel.
While our goal was 15 baby bereavement gowns, Jeanne’s talents brought us 17 gowns. She allowed me a sneak peak. Every gown was gorgeous, each a bit different. Jeanne had even labeled them beautifully, according to the approximate size of the infant who would be wearing the gown.
(My understanding is when an infant dies in the hospital, the nurses take the baby from the parents to bathe and then dress the infant in a bereavement gown. They bring the baby back to them in the gown.)
Finally the night arrived for our book club to meet and present the gowns. Unfortunately, Lisa Carter had a conflict, so Laura Levine, another member of our book club, graciously agreed to accept the gowns and present them to Lisa. We discussed The Funeral Dress and agreed it ends in a way that paves the way for a sequel.
Jeanne Prud’homme, I wish I had the words that I feel would adequately express my thanks to you and appreciation of you so freely and willingly sharing your talents with 17 infants and their families. Thank you, Thank You, THANK YOU!! We would not have been able to even think about embarking on this mission without you at the helm!
Statistically, as I write this, at least 3 gowns have been subtracted from the supply of 17. We pray the gowns are a blessing to the surviving family members.
A great photographer I am not; this picture does not do any kind of justice to either Jeanne or to the beautiful infant bereavement gowns she created.
Copyright February 29, 2020 by Rebecca Henderson.