BY ESTHER J. CEPEDA, Chicago Sun-Times Columnist
Ten years ago today, my daughter Wren was born and, moments later, died.
Back then not every Tom, Dick and Harriet had a blog or a Facebook account on which to share their most personal joys and heartbreaks, and you couldn’t begin the healing process of getting over your newborn baby’s sudden death by turning to Internet support forums.
Today you can type “baby death support groups” into Google and get about 9 million pages of personal stories, tips on how to cope with loss and practical advice on how to deal with talking about your departed child. You can even find nonprofit organizations — such as the Dempsey Burdick Memorial Foundation, which I wrote about last year — that help low-income families afford a proper grave marker for their baby’s final resting place.
Wren, who was deathly ill in utero for weeks before her birth and short life, has been much on my mind this month. The tenth anniversary of her death loomed large, and then I was heartbroken to learn that as many as 26 fetuses and stillborn babies were loaded into one pine box and buried in a mass unmarked grave at Homewood Memorial Gardens, a cemetery in Chicago’s far south suburbs. Not an unprecedented occurrence, I’m sure.
Though saddened, I was not shocked at how the poor are laid to rest in the richest country in the world. Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart pointed out that the Homewood cemetery had buried bodies as much as eight caskets high, one on top of another in mass graves, and he said that cemeteries keep only vague records of who is buried where.That means poor, grieving moms have nowhere but a scarred patch of land to return to when they want to visit their deceased babies. Tragically, there are far too many deaths and too little money to bury every person in a respectful manner.
It’s not easy figuring out what to do with the bodies of those so forgotten by our community that they couldn’t be identified or whose families were too poor for a better alternative.State Rep. Bill Cunningham, a Chicago Democrat, has proposed one solution, a bill that would limit cemeteries to burying indigent or unidentified bodies to three caskets in one grave. “We just thought that three was sort of reasonable,” Cunningham told a reporter at WBEZ-FM (91.5), Chicago’s public radio station. “That was probably expecting too much financially and spacewise to say just one.” Stay tuned for how that measure does. It’s now in the Rules Committee of the Illinois House of Representatives.
Not only were up to 26 babies buried together in the same box in one instance, Dart also reported some instances in which babies were buried in the same box with stray human arms and legs, and animal parts.
Under the very best of circumstances it’s difficult to deal with the death of a loved one. But losing a baby is a special kind of hell. For families who lose babies, an important part of the grieving process is making their child’s life and death real to themselves and others by having a physical memorial.Unlike in my family, the families of those babies whose little bodies were desecrated after their death will never heal properly from their heartbreak.
We can only hope that they might find a way to reach out for the emotional support — even if it’s just from the faceless Internet — in order to retrieve some measure of peace.
And we must honor and support them by never, never forgetting their loss.