Last month, you may have heard about Miranda Eve, a mysterious baby who was uncovered in San Francisco and identified more than a century after she died. The organization that kickstarted that investigation was the Garden of Innocence, a non-profit that provides burial services to unclaimed children across the state. Over the weekend, the Fresno chapter held a service for babies abandoned in Fresno County—but the garden serves more than children.
Ryan Murry was 31 when his wife gave birth to a stillborn baby girl. Adriana would have their first child. “You think this is going to be the only opportunity to become a father,” he says. “That's the kind of statement that went on my mind. Like, this was it. What comes after this? No one prepared me.
Murry retreated into himself, lost interest in his job, and disappeared from his marriage. There was “a lot of inward self-destructive behavior at the time,” he says. “I was drinking alcohol—that was my pacifier.”
That was six years ago. Now, Murry says he’s sober. His marriage is stronger than ever. And he’s found fulfillment in a new career. The turnaround, he says, was sparked by one thing: The Garden of Innocence. Murry, a videographer and photographer, volunteered at its first Fresno service in 2012. “To give a piece of yourself and not ask of anything in return was something that changed my life forever,” he says. “It changed the trajectory, changed the path of where I was going.”
He’s been volunteering ever since, along with a team of florists, carpenters, pastors, and performers, who all donate their time and services twice a year. But they’re not the only ones touched by this organization. Even on this blazing hot Saturday, close to 100 people have carved time out of their weekend to attend. Although these ceremonies are ostensibly for abandoned babies, they can help heal the living as well.
“When I get to walk away from here knowing that I have done something for my community, that’s great,” says Roy Bell, director of the Fresno Garden of Innocence—one of 10 gardens around the state. “It’s great. That just makes me feel good.”
Since the Fresno garden opened in 2012, he’s overseen the burial of 92 babies and toddlers in this roughly 300-square-foot plot of land in the middle of Mountain View Cemetery. The children come from the county coroner. They don’t have names. How they get there, Bell doesn’t know. A baby found in a San Diego trash can is what gave rise to the organization in the first place. “We aren’t allowed to know, and I really don’t want to know,” he says. “That baby didn’t have an opportunity to have a dignified burial, and my heart just says, why not?”
Bell says the goal of the garden is to lavish these babies with the attention and love they didn’t get while alive. Community members give each baby a name, and place its ashes in a handmade urn.
Today, they honor 11 babies. The ceremony lasts over an hour, and begins with bagpipers and an escort from the County Sheriff’s Honor Guard. Each baby is introduced by name. Members of local Elks Lodges deliver the urns in tuxedos and white gloves, before volunteers recite handwritten poems.
The babies are placed in vaults in pairs, so they’re not alone, each with a Beanie Baby and handmade blanket. Right before they’re buried, the urns are passed around to everyone in attendance. “We don't know if these babies were ever held, were ever kissed, were ever loved, but we wanted to give them that opportunity,” he says.
Many here are driven by religion, or simply a love of children, but there’s another contingent here, too: those recovering from loss. “One of the things that stirs me is because we had 2 miscarriages,” says Myrna Wasson, who’s attended every service since the garden opened in 2012. “This is a chance just to show love for the babies.”
“It’s a warmth that you can't put into words,” says Raelene Ramirez, who lost her teenage daughter to cancer and now volunteers regularly for the garden. “It gives you such a sense of fulfillment, a sense of peace, and a sense of belonging.”
This funeral is really a celebration. A happy ending to tragedy. And it’s that way for Ryan Murry, too. After our interview he shows me into a quiet room in his house. “This is Gabriel Owen Murry, he's 10 months old. He’s our miracle boy,” he says, gazing at his sleeping son.
It turns out Adriana wasn’t his last opportunity to be a father. He’ll always honor her—he and his wife dedicated a memorial to her in their house—but now they have Gabriel and his 3-year-old brother, Andrew, to celebrate, too.