Access Type

Open Access Dissertation

Date of Award

January 2012

Degree Type


Degree Name




First Advisor

Sherylyn Briller


Life transitions such as birth and death constitute a significant area within anthropological studies of ritual. It is important to investigate how individuals, groups, and communities organize around these events. Birth and death can be considered as rites of passage that mark key life transitions (van Gennep 1909/1960). Thus birth and death related rituals need to be investigated within the social and cultural context of American hospital settings to better understand the social organization of life, death, and personhood. In the American hospital setting, a reproductive loss at any gestational age receives the medical diagnostic label of an intrauterine fetal death (IUFD). An IUFD is consequently both a physical and social process that is medically managed in a labor and delivery unit. There is a need to more meaningfully understand how life, death, and personhood issues are handled during this difficult event for women, their families, and the health care staff. The pregnancy loss (IUFD) process, staff caring practices, and meaning making can be anthropologically viewed as a ritualistic process. An IUFD is a unique rite of passage that is a juxtaposition of a birth and a death. Ten women and their families, and 20 health care staff participated in this yearlong ethnographic study. Qualitative ethnographic methods included engaging in participant observation and conducting in-depth and follow-up interviews. Two exemplar case studies are discussed in detail. Data was coded and analyzed. Findings suggest that women and their families experience an IUFD as a birth rather than a procedure and recognize their non-viable fetus as a person. Women and their families assign personhood to a fetus during post-birth rituals such as naming, receiving a memory box with mementos, and having unrestricted time with the baby. The findings contribute to a better understanding of how the categories of life, death, and personhood are culturally made in the labor and delivery unit of an American hospital setting.