CEDAR RAPIDS – Elaine Hensen remembers walking to St. John’s Cemetery as a child, where her grandmother, Antonia Hac, regularly placed flowers on the graves of her late husband and a daughter, who died at birth.
“I don’t think they even named her – just baby girl,” said Hensen, 71, of Cedar Rapids.
Although buried in the family plot, the baby’s grave remained unmarked, until two months ago.
In a project undertaken by St. Ludmila Catholic Church, 49 unmarked graves received headstones at the cemetery, 1340 17th St. SE, including Hensen’s aunt, “Baby Hac.”
“A very wise priest told me a long time ago that if you want to unite a parish, take care of their dead and take care of their kids,” said the Rev. Dennis Juhl of St. Ludmila’s, 215 21st Ave. SW, who spearheaded the project.
The advice was sound, as parishioners embraced the project.
“People are still talking about it,” Juhl said.
Years ago, he had undertaken a similar endeavor at St. Albert’s Catholic Cemetery near Lamont.
Some of the unmarked graves at St. Albert’s were so old they likely were originally marked with wooden crosses, he said, while a more recent one was a person who died at the county home for the disabled.
After suggesting the idea for St. John’s Cemetery to St. Ludmila’s parishioners, Juhl was overwhelmed with the response.
He intended to promote the idea at St. Wenceslaus Catholic Church, which also has caretaking responsibilities for the cemetery.
“But in one weekend, people here bought all of the headstones,” he said of the markers, which cost $40 each.
Each 7-by-9-inch stone marker is inscribed with the person’s name and date of death, as well as a birth year, if known.
The oldest was for an infant who died in 1894, Juhl noted.
At least two are engraved as “Baby known only to God,” because the name is unknown, said Jim Petersen, caretaker for the cemetery.
Petersen helped pinpoint the unmarked graves by combing through records and walking through acres upon acres of the cemetery, which dates back to the 1870s. Many had temporary place-markers from funeral homes, but no permanent stone, he noted.
Both he and Juhl said causes for the absence of a marker could vary: some families may have been unable to afford a headstone or the deceased died without any loved ones.
Some families may live far away and time passed without arrangements being completed and others might not want to be reminded of the tragedy of their loss.
Petersen brushed snow off of one set of four of the new headstones, all infants from what appears to be the same family.
“It was hard for me to go by and see the babies never having a marker,” said Petersen, who has been caretaker at the cemetery since 2005. “I still think it’s heartbreaking – four babies from one family.”
Parishioners were equally touched by another infant whose ashes were buried at the cemetery in November.
Juhl had received the cremated remains from a funeral home director who was unsure what to do with them after they were found at a landfill in another city and given to him.
Church members held a service for the infant the same day that some of the stones were placed at St. John’s Cemetery.
The project is continuing, as Petersen finds more unmarked graves.
“It’s not complete,” he said, citing another set of markers that will be purchased from Stone Concepts in Anamosa this spring.
Hensen, who, with her husband, purchased the stone for her aunt’s grave, said people of all ages participated, including students from Xavier High School.
“It was overwhelming,” she said. “It just kind of touched people’s hearts.”