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Decades after stillbirths, long-grieving parents find answers in mass graves | #childabductors | #parenting | #parenting | #kids


Irishman Tony Canavan has waited 50 years and travelled half the world to give his daughter a proper burial.

The 73-year-old doesn’t really remember what happened when baby Sandra was stillborn at Melbourne’s Preston Hospital in September 1968.

Apart from being told he would need a coffin, and it would cost $8, he has either forgotten or blocked out much of the rest.

“I don’t remember going into the hospital or coming out,” Mr Canavan recounted.

“Just that she (his wife Betty) wanted to go home.”

If his experience was like the tens of thousands of other parents who had stillborn children in that era, it’s likely he and Betty weren’t given a chance to see or hold their baby.

A funeral wouldn’t have even been discussed. Whatever happened, it marked the couple forever.

Fifty years to the day after his stillborn baby was buried, Tony Canavan finally gets the chance to hold a funeral for her.(ABC News: Jessica Longbottom)

Despite arriving in Australia to start a new life just a year earlier, they got back on the boat and made the six-week return journey home.

The couple went on to have four children and a full and happy life in Dublin, but Sandra’s death was always there.

So much so that when his wife died two years ago, Mr Canavan decided to track down Sandra’s final resting place from his home in Ireland.

And it transpired he’d get to give her the funeral she never had.

Up until the 1980s, thousands of stillborn babies, as well as babies who survived less than a few days, were buried in mass graves across Australia.

Most hospitals prevented parents from holding, or even seeing, these newborns.

Funerals were discouraged, and the newly bereaved parents were told to forget about it and get on with life.

But they didn’t forget.

Full frame shot of a plaque
Vale Sandra Canavan.(ABC News: Jessica Longbottom)

The result was several generations of young parents who have never had their grief, or children, publicly acknowledged.

“You just went home to an empty house and it was just over, and to society that baby didn’t exist,” explains Joan Noonan, who lost her baby girl when she was three days old.

“As we were in those days, we just sort of accepted that was the practice.

“Now you’d fight tooth and nail not to have that happen, but it was just the practice that was happening then.”

In recent decades, some of these parents have begun to question what happened to them.

They’ve tracked down death certificates, and hospital and cemetary records, to find the final resting place of their children.

Mourners stand around a mass grave
Around thirty people gathered at the memorial for stillborn baby Sandra Canavan. Most of them had lost a child in similar circumstances.(ABC News: Jessica Longbottom)

Hundreds of babies remain unidentified

There are 11,000 babies buried in mass graves at the Melbourne General Cemetery, and hundreds of newborns at the Fawkner Cemetery in the city’s north.

A few suburbs away, at the Preston Cemetery, 350 babies are buried together in a space of about 3 metres by 3 metres.

They died between 1947 and 1977.

Over the years, more and more plaques have appeared honouring their lives.

On top of the grave there are dinosaur figurines and bubble blowers, rubber ducks and stuffed teddies, to bring them comfort.

While Sandra Canavan is the latest to have a plaque, hers is just the 57th.

Hundreds of other babies remain unidentified.

Toys and candles at grave.
Around 350 babies are buried together in the space at the Preston Cemetery.(ABC News: Jessica Longbottom)

It had always been too painful for Mr Canavan’s wife to even talk about her daughter’s death, but he needed to know what happened.

He contacted SANDS, a stillbirth support group in Melbourne, who helped him discover Sandra was buried in the Preston Cemetery.

It was then that he decided to make the journey 17,000 kilometres to Australia to hold the funeral Sandra never had.

About 30 people gathered to say goodbye, most of them men and women who lost their babies in similar circumstances.

Linda Storey’s little girl Debra also died 50 years ago.

She was three days old.

Ms Storey only held her daughter once, and the emotion is still raw.

“The doctor, when she died, he didn’t wait for anyone to be with me, he just came into the room and said ‘Your baby’s dead’,” she said crying.

“I was discharged early because it was Christmas Day, and just sort of had to pretend that nothing had happened.”

She and her husband moved to Queensland after Debra died, to make a fresh start.

For years she thought her baby was buried in a coffin with an adult, as she had heard that was what happened to babies that died.

She was relieved when she discovered Debra was buried with hundreds of other babies, and she was not alone.

Looking down on bald man lighting candle by grave
“To have the plaque down really makes it for me,” said Mr Canavan. “I’ll know where she’ll always be.”(ABC News: Jessica Longbottom)

Mr Canavan recites a reading, and lights a candle for the daughter he never got to hold.

A priest gives her, and the hundreds of other babies in the grave, a Catholic blessing.

It’s 50 years to the day that Sandra was buried here.

There was no fanfare then. But today, she has a proper goodbye.

“It means a lot, big time you know,” Mr Canavan said after the ceremony.

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