Inside a make-shift workshop in the Lake Como ConneXions Church, Ohio college students on spring break are making something they had never thought about before: coffins for babies.
Lake Como Pastor Oliver Phillips said the “Little Angels” caskets for indigent families is part of his church’s ministry to help people in need, distress and grief.
“The death of an infant is an uninvited guest,” he said.
A child’s casket costs at least $400, said funeral director Gail Thomas-DeWitt, whose mortuary will receive the hand-made caskets. She said her funeral home hears about four times a month from families who have lost a child but can’t afford a funeral.
“We experience this on a regular basis,” said Thomas-DeWitt with Gail & Wynn’s Mortuary in Washington Shores, a predominantly African-American neighborhood in Orlando. “We welcome this. It’s a wonderful idea.”
Orange County provides cremation of infants and children of indigent parents. In the past year, the county paid for the cremation of 47 children younger than 4 born to poor parents, said Dianne Arnold, who handles indigent burials and cremations for the Orange County Division of Children and Family Services.
But for those whose religious and cultural beliefs are opposed to cremation — including Muslims, Orthodox and Conservative Jews, some Catholics, many Baptists, and much of the black community — the county requires them to pay the $400 difference between the cost of burial and cremation.
Those unable to pay the difference can apply for a waiver, Arnold said. Indigent families also qualify for a free burial plot at a county cemetery, she said.
In Lake County, infants and children are the exception to the county’s policy of indigent cremation. While adults must be cremated, Lake will pay for the burial of babies, which costs $460 more than cremation.
“With children, we do make an exception,” said Joan Pell, who handles the county’s indigent burial and cremation program. “The loss of a child is so much different and families need that closure of a burial.”
In Osceola, the county pays for indigent burial or cremation but only if there are “absolutely no other resources available to cover these costs.” Seminole County pays for indigent burials and cremations, but only had one in the past year, and that was an infant cremation.
The emotional difference between the death of an adult and the death of the child is not lost on the 30 Bible college students from Mount Vernon Nazarene University.
The hand-made pine coffins are the size of a child’s toy box.
“You see the caskets and you feel this should not happen,” said Erik Shull, 22, a senior public-relations major. “But it’s a sad truth.”
To Jodi Figueroa, a 22-year-old senior international studies major, the project was the chance to make a practical, tangible difference in the lives of others. It wasn’t spending spring break painting church walls or landscaping the grounds.
It wasn’t about saying a prayer. It’s about answering a prayer not yet made.
“A lot of Christians talk a lot about doing something but don’t want to get their hands dirty,” she said. “We are actually doing something.”
For the students, this was not a typical spring-break trip to Orlando. They might still make it to Walt Disney World or Daytona Beach, but they will bring with them to the amusement rides and sandy beaches a more personal sense of mortality.
“I like to think 10 years down the road. This makes me think. ‘What if I don’t make it?’ ” said Anna Dew, 18, a freshman majoring in psychology and English. “I don’t want my impact to be 10 years from now. I want it to be now.”
The project bestowed on the students some empathy for a grieving family that will one day need the coffin they sanded and assembled. They leave a piece of themselves — their name, a note — beneath the infant’s satin pillow.
“Caskets are not personal,” said Liz Bowles, 21, a senior majoring in fine art. “This is like giving a piece of your soul to someone who is broken.”