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In cemeteries, friendship grows among grieving parents

By Steve Mills

Chicago Tribune (MCT)

Published: Monday, April 9 2012 5:54 p.m. MDT

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."

(c)2012 the Chicago Tribune; Visit the Chicago Tribune at www.chicagotribune.com ; Distributed by MCT Information Services

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