Bereaved mum’s relief as Belfast memorial planned for infants in mass grave
A woman whose baby is among thousands buried in the Baby Public Plot at Belfast City Cemetery says a new memorial will help heal the grief and pain still felt by hundreds of families.
Agnes Close's son Maxwell died only nine hours after his birth on January 15, 1973.
After spending a few minutes with her child, he was rushed to intensive care, and Agnes was told he had died and would be buried in the 'Z1' public plot, where nearly 8,000 babies were interred.
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The 64-year-old grandmother, who helps other families whose babies were stillborn or died shortly after birth to trace their children's remains, has been campaigning for 17 years for a memorial at the mass grave.
This month Belfast City Council launched a consultation to put up a memorial to the 7,863 infants in the plot.
The proposed design is a 150cm tall headstone with an engraving of a baby lying on a bed of leaves, and inscribed: 'In loving memory of 7,863 babies buried here 1945-1996'.
On the back is inscribed 'There is no foot too small that it cannot leave an imprint on this world'.
Agnes, just 18 when Maxwell died, said the lack of a permanent memorial "made it worse for parents".
She said: "When my baby was born they took him away and I didn't see him again. The hospital said they had a plot in the City Cemetery and they took care of babies' burials. I only got to hold my son for a few minutes before he was taken away, and I didn't see him after he passed away.
"People weren't directly involved in the burial of their own babies, and some never found out where they were buried. Most of the babies were stillborn or died shortly after birth, and the health authorities thought it was best for parents not to see their babies after they died. It was nothing but cruel, and it inflicted further pain on grieving families.
"Those babies and their families were let down by society, But I'm one of the lucky ones - I know where my baby is buried. It was a cruel practice, there's no doubt about it.
"I was shocked when I found out where he was buried.
"It's a copse of trees, each tree has a number and in between there are graves, each of which has several babies in it.
"The ground is atrocious. When it rains it is waterlogged. It isn't a very pleasant place."
On the 42nd anniversary of her son's death Agnes approached DUP MLA William Humphrey, and gathered political support for a memorial.
"It's 73 years since the burials of babies started there and they're only getting round to the memorial now," she said.
"They didn't treat those children with respect, as valued human beings. Many people still don't know where their babies are buried. In the past three years I have found 47 babies.
"Some people have been searching for their babies for decades. In the past, stillbirth or the death of a baby was treated as a dark secret. Families are still coming forward in their grief and pain."
Agnes hopes that the memorial, by sculptor Charlotte Howarth, will provide comfort.
"I hope that the memorial design, which has been developed with families whose babies are buried there, will help deal with the grief and help the healing process," she added.
"I would ask as many members of the public as possible to respond to the council's consultation and support the memorial. When the memorial is unveiled, we would like to see a service with representatives of different faiths.
"In the future we would also like to see a plaque with all the babies' names there. In the meantime, I will continue to remember Maxwell in my heart."
The consultation closes on August 31. To take part, visit www.belfastcity.gov.uk.
Belfast City Council said: "We have been working with families for several years to create a suitable memorial and are holding a public consultation exercise on the way forward.
"The soil in Z1 is a heavy red clay and the heavy rainfall earlier this year did cause difficulties.
"However, our staff work hard to maintain all burial plots in our cemeteries.
"We will continue to ensure road gullies around this area are cleared and free-running to reduce water-logging in future."