If you stare long enough at the ground, through the grave markers at Babyland Gardens inside Harmony Memorial Park, you can almost see the infants, frozen in their last moments of life.
There is the teary-eyed boarder baby, his tiny fist held high in defiance as he wages a valiant battle against his mother's cocaine addiction.
Nearby is a toddler, a look of shock and disappointment on his face: What he thought was candy when he swallowed it turned out to be a lethal dose of crack that someone had left on the living-room table.
Another infant looks to be asleep, but has merely closed his eyes and placed his arms over his head to shield himself from a father's fatal beating. Yet another newborn stares ahead with her mouth agape and eyes wide open, starving in the trash bin where she had been abandoned.
Nearly a quarter-acre of babies are laid out along the cemetery hillside in Landover, nestled beneath a stone engraving of Mary and her little lamb. What should have begun as fairy-tale lives had, for many of these children, become nighmarish encounters with the worst kinds of deaths.
These were babies in memorial, the nation's most precious resource, as we are fond of saying, dead before they had a chance to walk or speak. And now their bodies remained in cruel testimony to the neglect of this most fragile gift called life.
Some had been killed in household accidents; others had succumbed to disease. But the fact is that some of the babies had been sentenced to death before they were born by parents who refused to seek prenatal care, who had not stopped drinking alcohol, smoking cigarettes or using drugs while pregnant.
In some cases, they had simply been thrown away, newborns shoved down sewers and storm drains like so much disposable waste.
"We've seen a big surge in Babyland burials during the past two years," said David J. Bell, general manager of Harmony Memorial Park. "A lot of them, unfortunately, are directly related to mothers on crack, child abuse and teenage pregnancy."
Many of the dead babies came from the District, where infant mortality continues to be double the national average. From January through June last year, 131 babies in the nation's capital died before reaching their first birthday. In 1988, 244 infants had died.
The problem of infant mortality has become so acute that Harmony Memoral Park now offers a discount, what Bell calls a "special baby price," for Babyland burials.
"We feel this is so unfortunate," he said. "We do not make a profit. We take a loss out of a sense of public service because the need is so great. Usually, the parents of the dead child are not married, so the burden falls on the grandmother, who really can't afford any extra expenses."
Few sights are sadder, Bell noted, than the now common routine of a lone car and a hearse pulling into Babyland Gardens. In the absence of family pallbearers, cemetery workers lower the tiny caskets into the ground while tearful grandmothers console grief-stricken teenage girls.
Yesterday, as weekend Memorial Day commemorations began, more than a few visitors to Harmony Memorial Park headed for Babyland.
A teenage couple drove up in a new Jeep Cherokee, the boy casually sipping beer behind the steering wheel while the girl stood stoically over a tiny grave.
Asked what had brought her to Babyland, she replied breathlessly, "I never even held my child," then hurried away in tears.
An elderly woman arrived by taxicab, walked with a cane to a rain-soaked grave, praying and calming herself with a fistful of rosary beads. The marker noted that the infant had been born in November 1989, but had not lived to see the New Year.
Asked what had happened to the baby, the woman said, "It wasn't the child's fault, I can tell you that."
What had gone wrong?
If you looked at the ground long enough, you could almost hear the babies wondering why. All they had done was be born. All they wanted was to live.
You could almost hear them begging us to save the rest of the babies, even above the noise of bulldozers that were clearing another 14 acres to make room for still more.