INDIANAPOLIS — Three decades had passed since her wedding, and Marie Murphy didn't know what to do with her wedding dress. Then she realized the pristine white satin would make perfect material for burial clothes for premature babies who had died.
Murphy, a nurse in a neonatal intensive care unit, soon amassed a number of donated gowns, as well as some volunteers with sewing skills, and started turning bridal gowns into burial gowns.
In April, the Northside resident started a nonprofit, Little Angel Gowns. Every Wednesday morning since then, she and a handful of volunteers have gathered at the Horizons of Faith United Methodist Church in Pike Township a mile from her house to turn bridal gowns into burial gowns.
Often, hospitals wrap these smallest of corpses in blankets, as they have little else to offer. Even preemie clothing may hang off the baby's body — or not be appropriate.
The free delicate garments that Murphy and her volunteers craft offer families an alternative. There are beaded gowns for girls, little suits with black velvet bow ties for boys and angel pouches for the remains.
"There's actually a great need," said Murphy, who works in the NICU at EskenaziHospital. "Families want something different and a little more special to be burying their babies in."
When Faran Cheema's daughter was stillborn June 14 at 27 weeks, the Indianapolis first-time mother searched for something in which she could bury her baby. She purchased a gown from Etsy, but even that was too large for her 9-ounce, 9-inch little girl, Khaleesi Lois Yeavette Bates.
A friend found Murphy's organization on Facebook. The next morning, Murphy delivered a gown for Cheema's daughter.
The ivory gown with a pink wrap was more than Cheema had hoped for.
"It gave me so much more peace of mind, because I felt inadequate. ... When you bury an elderly person, you bury them in their best, and that's what I felt like I should do for my child, but we weren't prepared," Cheema said.
Cheema was the first beneficiary of Murphy's organization, and Murphy attended Khaleesi's funeral.
But for the most part, Murphy does not plan to meet those who receive her gowns.
Instead, she'll give the gowns to hospitals for them to use as needed. In the coming weeks, she plans to deliver about 50 gowns to seven hospitals in Central Indiana and Fort Wayne. This fall, the need for these gowns could increase. A new law goes into effect that allows parents to decide how to dispose of the remains of their miscarried child.
Indiana hospitals aren't the only ones that could benefit.
Murphy said she would be happy to donate to any hospital interested in the tiny dresses and suits her organization is making.
Volunteer Ardath Hinds, one of about a half-dozen who help out each week, knows just how appreciated those gowns will be wherever they go. Hinds was a NICU nurse for 31 years before retiring. She recalled searching for proper burial garments when little ones died. She and her colleagues hated to have to send families shopping at such a tragic time in their lives.
"We had very little to nothing to work with," said Hinds, who now drives from west of Danville each Wednesday to sew gowns. "I wish we had something like this back then."
It's hard to estimate how many families a year could benefit from the program. About 30,000 babies are stillborn in the U.S. each year, according to the MISS Foundation, a support group for families who have lost a child before birth. Then, there are those who make it to the NICU, but don't survive.
Little Angel Gowns makes garments in three sizes, one for a baby weighing 1 to 2.5 pounds, one for an infant weighing 2.5 to 5 pounds, and one for an infant up to about 9 pounds. Each wedding gown yields 12 to 20 burial items.
The gowns are pouring in. Murphy has collected more than 70. She'll take bridal gowns, prom dresses and First Communion dresses. Anything that she deems inappropriate for use as a burial garment, she donates to DSA, a local organization that works with the developmentally disabled.
On a recent Wednesday, Melissa Goad delivered eight dresses she had collected from friends and family.
The Noblesville woman said the organization's mission spoke to her. She lost her 3-year-old daughter in January and was able to bury her in some of her Christmas finery. She could not imagine what it would be like not to have appropriate clothing for her daughter.
"As one of the people who donated a gown said, 'It's just a thing to me, and to somebody else, it can be something really, really special,' " she said.