CHICAGO — On a triangle of grass near the back corner of a cemetery, over the tiny graves of children, a small community of parents has formed around the grief and sorrow and shared experience of car accidents and stillbirths, cancer and lengthy hospital stays that, in each case, ended the same sad way.
Amid a landscape of green lawns and gray monuments and markers, the children's section at Queen of Heaven Cemetery is a burst of color that belies the sadness. At Halloween, grave sites are decorated with plastic jack O' lanterns and witches. At Christmas, they are adorned with Santas, candy canes and wreaths. And at Valentine's Day, small red hearts, roses and balloons dot a fresh snowfall.
Here, couples such as Jorge and Aurora Castaneda get to know Julio Munoz and his wife Rosa Ortiz, seeing each other after church, friendship forged around losses: The Castanedas' daughter, Jayleen, died in October 2008, at the age of 5 1/2 months, after a series of illnesses, while Munoz and Ortiz's first child, Kamila Estrella, a girl, was stillborn in January 2008, days before Ortiz was scheduled to give birth.
The two children are buried steps from one another near the point of that triangle of grass. A tall and white wooden cross with a silver star atop it stands over Kamila's gravestone, while a black marble stone with a fine etching of her face rests over Jayleen's grave.
"Sometimes our families avoid talking about what happened," said Ortiz, a social worker. "But with people who have been through the same thing, we can share. We can cry with them. Even if we don't know them, everyone who comes here we know just how they're feeling."
Said 33-year-old Jorge Castaneda, who lives in Berwyn, Ill., with his wife: "The thing is, people here know our pain. They've had the same experience. They feel like family. They know the hurt doesn't go away easily. And you can talk to them. Nobody tells you to get over it already."
That friendship can be a welcome byproduct of deep sorrow — that some good can come from a family tragedy — is, in a way, comforting.
"It's natural for them to share their grief, their sadness, their dreams and hopes," said Roman Szabelski, the executive director of the Catholic Cemeteries for the Archdiocese of Chicago. "They've experienced something very painful. So they're in this experience together."
This section of the cemetery is mostly for infants, though a small number of young children are buried here, too. They are in plots 1-foot-by-2-feet rather than the standard 3-feet-by-8-feet dimensions of adult plots, their tiny caskets sometimes carried to the cemetery in the front seat of a family car. Because the plots are smaller, the density is greater. As a result, families get to know one another, often on Sundays when the area is teeming with parents and their children running around and playing.
Parents talk of seeing others come here with lawn chairs or grills in the spring and summer, spending several hours sitting and chatting. Munoz said he once saw a woman pull a sleeping bag out of her car, lay it down near her child's grave and crawl inside as if to go to sleep.
Parents opt for the children's section, Szabelski said, because they often are young, just starting out in life, and not ready to purchase a family plot — the kind of financial commitment many are not yet equipped to make. Others do not know how the next decades will play out or even whether they will remain in the Chicago area. Putting down those sorts of roots, for them, is premature.
"They have no idea what the future is going to hold for them," said Szabelski. "So the children's sections make a lot of sense."
The sense of community comes, too, from the fact that the death of a child or a stillbirth is a rare thing today, said Thomas Lynch, the Michigan funeral director who is an acclaimed poet and essayist. A century ago, Lynch said, Americans were accustomed to burying children, so it was not unusual for them to buy a family plot and inter children there, or for families to know others who had experienced the same loss.
"It's become such a statistical anomaly now that a young mother feels alone," said Lynch, whose book, "The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade," explored how we deal with death and its attendant rituals. "Where she'll find other parents who have paid the same tuition she's paid is at the cemetery. The idea of a community gathering up around shared loss makes sense. They can speak their own language."
Making the burial of a child rarer still are rising rates of cremation. In 1960, said Lynch, only 5 percent of people were cremated. Today that figure is more than 40 percent. Most Catholic cemeteries have sections for children, and some township cemeteries do as well, said Lynch. Often, these sections are along a cemetery's back row, between other sections or in spaces that do not easily accommodate graves for adults. They are not profit-making areas.
At Queen of Heaven, in west suburban Hillside, the first children's area, Section 18W, was started in 1954, seven years after the cemetery opened. Many of the youths who died in the 1959 fire at Our Lady of the Angels school, which killed 92 students and three nuns, were buried in Section 18W.
Queen of Heaven's second section for children's graves, Section P, opened in 1992, said Szabelski. That is where Kamila is buried. Munoz, 29, an audiovisual technician, said he and his wife never gave much thought to purchasing a family plot. When someone at the hospital where Ortiz was treated told them about the children's area at Queen of Heaven, they knew they had found a perfect resting place.
"This," said Munoz, "is going to be her little spot."
Damaris Osuna, whose 6-month-old son Jacob died in a car accident in April 2006, said she and her husband and three other boys often celebrate holidays at the cemetery. At Christmas they usually leave an artificial tree they decorate with ornaments, at Easter an Easter basket and on what would be Jacob's birthday in October, they bring a cake and picnic basket and spend an entire afternoon.
"It's something nice for all the babies to have their own section, to have them all in one spot," said Osuna, 29, who lives in Chicago with her husband Angel and their boys. "I've always been glad that we found out about it. It's the perfect cemetery to have somebody buried at."
Over time, she and her husband have gotten to know other families. In some instances, they have come to recognize parents who visit at the same time they do. They often stop and chat, but Osuna said she can also tell when parents are not ready for conversation.
In that case, she leaves them be.
"A lot of people become friendly here. It's funny it happens like that," she said. "But some people, they want you to leave them alone."
On a wind-whipped day recently, Munoz and Ortiz parked their car on the road alongside Kamila's grave and brought out a pair of colorful plastic flowers and pushed the stems into the wet ground. They imagined what their daughter would be like now, just weeks after what would have been her fourth birthday, how she would get along with her 2 1/2-year-old brother, Gabriel, and what sort of future she might have had.
Munoz and Ortiz come every two weeks or so, and often they ask themselves the same might-have-been questions.
"It's fun to do that," he said. "It's really a nice community here."
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