The Shelby County Cemetery stretches peacefully for 30 acres, a public burial ground since 1965. In one section, where pine trees whisper against a pale-gray sky, several rows of four-inch metal disks mark the earth. Each bears a number stamped on its surface; some are barely visible in the sunken ground.
This is Babyland, the unofficial name for the place where Memphis' poorest babies — 14,000 of them at this writing — are laid to rest. Its caretaker for more than 30 years has been Robert Savage, an affable, kind-faced man who takes his occupation in stride. He acknowledges that losing an infant is heartbreaking for the families, but he adds, "I'm comfortable with my job. Death is part of life."
Savage picks up the bodies, usually from the morgue at The Med. He records the children's names and assigned numbers in a log book, stamps the numbers into metal disks, and writes the child's last name and disk number on the coffins. "They're about the size of my shoe," says Savage of the pine boxes, which are actually about two feet long and seven inches wide. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, he and cemetery laborers bury these babies — six or eight caskets at a time, four feet deep, perhaps a foot apart — and press the disks into the ground.
Though just a short drive from Wolfchase Galleria and adjacent to a new subdivision where swing sets gleam in the sunshine, Babyland boasts no signs of affluence. Artificial flowers or stuffed toys and animals lie next to some of the disks; here and there small cherubs pay silent tribute. One grave belongs to a boy named Daryl, who lived three weeks in July 2008; parked near his marker is a baby-blue plastic car with a smiling teddy bear at the wheel. Only a heart of stone would not weep at the sight.
The parents — in many cases, just mothers — call Savage to find out if their child's grave is ready. Then they arrive to say their last farewells. For some, it's a first child, for others a second or third. In a few cases, grandmothers who accompany the mourners have babies buried there too. Savage guides the grieving party to their marker, then quietly departs. Some have a pastor with them, others only family. Some read a few words from a Bible, others lean on each other and gaze at the ground. Says Savage: "They might put a little cross on the grave."
One such cross, at the grave of a child named Keisha, bears the anguished words: "Mommy loves U 4-Ever.....Daddy Loves U Always." Perhaps most poignant is a rough square of unfinished wood resting on the earth. In now-faded ink, a mother carefully printed the child's name on one side, on the other she wrote: "God Bless My Baby Boy."