Grieving parents find connections at cemetery

Gabriel Munoz, 2, romps around the children's section of Queen of Heaven Cemetery with his mother Rosa Ortiz, top, after placing ornaments on his sister Kamila Estrella's grave, March 25, 2012 in Hillside. His father and Rose's husband, Julio Munoz, in foreground. (Chuck Berman/Chicago Tribune/MCT)

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, red hearts 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 5½ 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 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.”

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. 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.

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, 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 children.

Parents talk of seeing others come here with lawn chairs or grills, 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.