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‘We bury them with love and respect’

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DIGNIFIED: For 25 years, a Knights of Columbus color guard has been a familiar sight at the Garden of Innocence’s dignified burial services for abandoned babies, including the one in this file photo. (Credit: Courtesy Knights of Columbus)

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SAN DIEGO — A final resting place for abandoned and unidentified babies will celebrate its 25th anniversary.

The Garden of Innocence, located at El Camino Memorial Park in Sorrento Valley, will mark this milestone on Sunday, June 2. The event will take place from 2 to 4 p.m.

The event will provide an opportunity to recognize the many people who have made the Garden possible, and tours will be given.

Since its founding 25 years ago, the nonprofit has held nondenominational graveside services for more than 250 children. The first, “Baby Adam,” was interred there on June 19, 1999.

Founder Elissa Davey, who now serves as CEO of Garden of Innocence National, read in a newspaper in 1999 about a dead baby found in the trash in Chula Vista. A month later, she called the county medical examiner’s office and learned that the body was still unclaimed and destined for an unmarked grave.

“They deserve dignity,” not the anonymity of “a potter’s field,” Davey said of abandoned and unidentified babies.

Seven years after creating the first Garden in San Diego, Davey set out to replicate that effort in other cities. Since then, about a dozen gardens have been established.

Garden of Innocence/San Diego began with a section of burial plots donated by El Camino Memorial Park. Adjacent property was purchased later, and there is room for further growth.

The bodies of most of the children buried there were left unclaimed in area hospitals. Others’ bodies may have been found in the trash or on the side of the road. (The Garden does not bury indigent children, whose parents have given directives regarding their child’s burial.)

“These babies are abandoned and left behind for various reasons,” said Allan Musterer, current president of Garden of Innocence/San Diego. “We don’t delve into the reasons; we don’t judge the parents. Our whole purpose is to focus on the child and give that child the most dignified burial possible.”

Davey said, “We take care of them as if they were our own, and we bury them with love and respect.”

Each child receives a first name, a poem written specifically for him or her, and a funeral service. The bodies, each lovingly wrapped in a handmade blanket, are placed in small caskets.

At the funeral service, prayers are recited by a guest minister. Fourth-degree Knights of Columbus, in full regalia, serve as pallbearers and as an honor guard. Funeral-goers encircle the grave, forming a “chain of love” and passing the casket from one to another. Among other things, there is live music, rose petals are dropped into the open grave, and doves are released.

“Every single service is unique unto itself,” said Musterer, who first visited the Garden in 2008 for the burial of the Garden’s 100th child.

A continual presence at the Garden has been the Knights of Columbus, who “bring a profound spiritual atmosphere into the garden” and “have never missed a service,” Musterer said.

Roark Galloway, district master of the fourth-degree Knights of Columbus in Southern California, serves on the board of directors of Garden of Innocence/San Diego. He recalled attending his first service at the Garden as a fourth-degree Knight around 2011.

“It was a very emotionally moving experience for me,” he said, “and I think just about anyone would tell you the same thing.”

San Diego’s only Catholic diocesan cemetery, Holy Cross Catholic Cemetery and Mausoleum, created its “Garden of Innocents” in 1979 for abandoned and indigent children and children who died in miscarriages. Unaffiliated with Garden of Innocence National, it is one of several locations at Holy Cross Cemetery where indigent children can be laid to rest.

Information is available at gardenofinnocence.org.

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