Religiosity in Secular Spaces: Perinatal Bereavement Rituals in the Hospital

Date of Award

December 2016

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




M. Gail Hamner


Biopower, Feminist theory, Religiosity, Ritual, Space, Stillbirth

Subject Categories

Arts and Humanities


Perinatal bereavement rituals developed within hospitals in the late 1970s, broadly coinciding with the historical movements surrounding hospice and palliative care, abortion, women’s reproductive health and the critique of the medical model of pregnancy and childbirth in the US. Bathing, holding and spending time with the baby are examples of these rituals which have subsequently become institutionalized as the standard of care in hospitals. This study is inspired by the question, why are these highly developed and nuanced birth/death rituals, created predominantly by nurses and counselors in hospitals, largely absent from religious spaces, traditions and ritual practice? I argue that perinatal bereavement practices are in fact rituals, indicative of what philosopher Michel Foucault named ‘biopower’ and disrupt the supposed divide between science and religion. Given the central place of women’s pregnant and birthing bodies in the context of religious rituals for women, I outline where feminist theories of pregnant embodiment stand in relation to traditional forms of Judaism and Christianity, as well as biomedicine, itself a tradition with a complex androcentric history. I elaborate the idea of ritual as a process of invention and critique in order to understand perinatal bereavement practices as new ritual forms. I examine Bioethics as a disciplinary perspective which informs the ethics surrounding these rituals and frames the decisions and discourse of the nursing community; I suggest “technologies of ethical proceduralism” as an outcome of the breakdown between ethical theory and ethical practice in healthcare. The will to health and desire to train women how to most effectively heal after this tragic, often unexpected loss is the entry point for my analysis of Foucauldian biopower. Last, the physical, spatial location of the hospital as the site of perinatal losses and their commemoration pulls the study back to concerns regarding the spatial dimension of religiosity and ritual in secular spaces. The hospital as a pluripotent, heterotopic space is not a contested religious space and therefore capable and ideally neutral in its secularity for the innovation of diverse new rituals. As a qualitative, theoretical study of the recent phenomenon of mourning perinatal loss, this dissertation draws attention to the line between ritualization and automation in perinatal loss clinical aftercare despite the power these rituals have to transform “fetal wastage” into the remains of the beloved dead child.


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