In a quiet hallway inside the Newark Church of Christ, clothing racks overflow with dozens of wedding gowns waiting for a chance to be reused.
Not for a second trip down the aisle, but to be repurposed as baby burial gowns for infants that were stillborn, miscarried or suddenly died.
The dresses, from several decades and eras of fashion, have been donated to local seamstress Dawn Dorrell, who sews burial gowns from the wedding attire and donates them to local funeral homes for families to freely use for their burial services.
Called Angel Gown Ministry, Dorrell began making the garments about 15 years ago after reading an article online about a woman making the gowns.
Having grown up sewing with her grandmother, Dorrell immediately found a pattern for the burial gowns online and put her sewing skills to work.
“You don’t prepare yourself for [losing a child]. It’s not something you think about,” said Dorrell.
She wants to lessen the burden on those going through a tragedy.
Dorrell, who moved to Delaware two years ago, recently posted on Nextdoor and Facebook about her gown making and asked for donations. Since then, 783 people have contacted her saying they would like to donate their wedding dress for the cause.
She has received 50 dresses so far and usually gets about four to six burial gowns out of one dress.
Hearing about her burial gowns and the amount of people reaching out to donate, Newark Church of Christ, Dorrell’s church, gave her a room in the building where she could store the dresses and sew.
“I didn’t hesitate. I think it’s the most beautiful thing I’ve heard in my life,” said Lore Lagola, who donated her wedding dress to Dorrell.
She got married in 2001 in a $350 dress she bought at a March madness sale. She had the dress preserved in the hopes of passing it down to a future daughter, but she never had children.
Lagola, who is the “aunt” to many children in her life and has friends who have lost their babies, found out about Angel Gown Ministry through a social media post and knew it was the perfect way to reuse her gown.
“It’s in a box. It’s not serving any purpose. That’s what made me decide my dress should serve a purpose to others,” she said.
With an extravagant train in tow, Dorrell estimated Lagola’s dress could create seven or eight burial gowns.
“There’s no better way to pass my dress on and give loving memories and cherished memories to those families. I get to bless many families and take one less burden, or stress or horrible thought off their mind,” said Lagola.
Most of the dresses Dorrell receives are white but she accepts them in any color and often adorns her sewn gowns with embellishments, such as beads, lace and buttons, that were on the original dress.
While Dorrell remains anonymous to families who have used her gowns, she has received plenty of support from the funeral homes she donates to and those who have given her their old dresses.
One woman who dropped off a wedding dress told Dorrell it actually belonged to her daughter who passed away, and being able to see it repurposed as a burial gown was healing. Hearing that story almost brought Dorrell to tears, she said.
“I’ve actually made two for people who I know, and it was really rough,” said Dorrell. “It was hard to do but it was rewarding for me.”
Each garment is sewn as a gown with an open back secured by ribbon ties to make it easier for funeral homes to dress the babies. Dorrell also adds soft interior linings and finished trims to make the gowns more “comfortable.”
Joel Bacchieri, a mother of two sons ages 22 and 23, was married in 1993 and is now widowed, having never opened the box her wedding dress was placed in.
After opening the garment box up and trying it on to take a few pictures, she ultimately decided to donate her dress because she believes in repurposing things so “somebody else can benefit from them” as opposed to them ending up in a dump, she said.
Years ago she researched ways her dress could be reused but didn’t find any options nearby until she saw Dorrell’s post on Nextdoor.
“It is a difficult thing because, that day, the day I wore my wedding dress, was the best day of my life,” said Joel Bacchieri. “I wanted it to go to something meaningful because it was meaningful to me.
“Having kids for me…by far the most important job. And I can’t fathom what those parents have gone through,” said Bacchieri, tearing up.
Dorrell’s pastor, Rex Butts, and his wife, Laura, unexpectedly lost their first son in 2002 when he was three days old.
“So much of that time is a blur. It’s almost like you’re walking on autopilot in terms of trying to function,” he said. “One of my fears was that our son would be forgotten…and he’s somebody. He’s a person.”
If someone like Dorrell had been around back then to donate a sewn burial gown, it’s something he and his wife would have greatly appreciated. It’s the “little things” that matter the most when someone is going through a tragedy, he said.
Although Butts says grief is something people never fully get over, part of the healing process is the people around you that are there to help.
“The thing about the gowns is…no parents have a baby expecting to lose a child. There’s this shock that I just can’t put into words,” he said. “The gown is just one little act of compassion that says, ‘I know what’s going on and I care,’ which means more than can be put into words.”
How to help
If you would like to donate a wedding dress, or another type of gown, donations are accepted at Newark Church of Christ at 91 Salem Church Rd. or by contacting Dorrell directly at firstname.lastname@example.org
Dorrell is also looking for people who are interested in helping her make the gowns.