Sunday, September 13, 2009

The cemetery

I said I would write more about the cemetery in this post so here goes..
That cemetery is where my sister, Eileen, is buried.
Eileen’s date of birth (and death) was 28th December 1963.

After my mother died,in 1987, I wondered and regretted that I didn’t know Eileen’s date of birth- My own sister, and I only knew the month and year of her birth. I dug around, found out what Dublin hospital she had been born in. It was not difficult as there are only 3 maternity hospitals in the city. I then wrote to that hospital, asking for details.

When the letter came back, my hands shook as I opened it. I knew, as I quickly scanned the page, by the quantity of print on it, that it wasn’t a “sorry we can’t help you” letter. I was so excited that I was about to uncover the treasure of information about my sister. The letter was sensitively written, and Eileen’s name was used several times throughout. This made an incredible difference to me as I read that letter- it was confirmation that my sister had existed, that she was a real person, valued as a real person, not just another “stillborn statistic”.

The letter gave her date of birth, and also her weight. Again, simple though it may sound, that made a difference too, in the sense of confirming her status as a real person. At that time, it was not possible to register the birth of a baby who was stillborn. And from a religious viewpoint, those un-baptised babies, according to the Catholic Church, went to “limbo”. Talk about twisting the knife in the wound of those poor, grieving parents!

The hospital did not have any photos of Eileen, which was a disappointment, though not unexpected. And the final important detail in the letter was the cemetery and plot number where she had been buried.

I knew that Eileen had been buried in Glasnevin Cemetery, because my mother often spoke of this, and of her regret at not bringing her home to our local cemetery

We (my other sister and I) decided to visit the grave, a few days later, on Eileen’s 36th birthday. We brought our own daughters, four in all. C, the eldest of the four at age 7, went to great bother painting a flowerpot with the date and “Happy 36th Birthday Eileen” on it. The girls couldn’t understand why she didn’t have a headstone, or how we didn’t know the exact spot. However, it would have been a group burial, and it was impossible to pinpoint the exact spot. Both my sister and I were independently drawn to one particular spot- it was close to the other 1960 markings, and although we walked around many times, we were always drawn back to that same spot.

There is so much that we don’t know- did anybody go to the funeral, or was there a funeral as such? Was her name written on the coffin? Was there a coffin? Was it white? All the arrangements were handled by the hospital- that was the practice for most stillborn babies at the time, sparing the parents the emotional upset of having to arrange their baby’s funeral.

I felt so emotional: I found it difficult to believe that it took so long for all of this to surface, that none of us ever had the curiosity before to find out the full details. I wondered was it, to some extent, a “taboo” subject. Certainly my father never talked about Eileen, he just prayed and prayed. My mother talked frequently about her, how perfect she was, how she had beautiful red hair, but we weren’t all that interested. To us, it was history, she was gone, nothing would bring her back. We hadn’t known her, so we weren’t bothered to find out more…

And yet, there is some sort of bond, even with a sister whom you haven’t met in the flesh. She has shared the same womb that some of us occupied prior to her incubation, and some others subsequent to it. We are a family of 8, including Eileen, so it was a womb that got a lot of occupancy.

I felt a huge pain and loss in the cemetery that day, for the sister I never got to chase around the garden, or dress up with, or have as a bridesmaid. I was only 6 when she was born, but I do have a vague recollection of my mother being in bed (a rarity) and my father telling us “don’t be annoying your mother” when we asked what happened to the baby. I never remember her being prayed for in person during our family Rosary, I only remember my mother talking about her when my father wasn’t around. Now, I wonder, what was that like? I can only guess how huge the pain and the loss was, for both of them, and how terrible it was for them to be unable to talk about it.

Most people at the time thought it was better to “get on with things” and that “you’ll forget about it when you have another”. I know that my mother never forgot about Eileen, not for one single day. And, on some level, neither did I. In that cemetery, I felt happy that I had finally found her spot, and that I had visited her. I felt that Eileen was happy too, to finally have some visitors. I was shocked when my sister told me that Eileen’s bones would still be there- I hadn’t thought of that.

I couldn’t understand, for a long time, why my mother never asked me to bring her to Glasnevin Cemetery. We visited lots of places during summer holidays, as I’ve written before. However, that day, standing in the cemetery, I finally understood. Knowing that there was no marker on the grave, and knowing how much she regretted not bringing her home to be buried, I understood some more.

Seeing a huge plot, and realising it’s full of unknown babies bodies, one of whom is your sister, is mindboggling.

That night, as I pictured my mother holding that little, 6lbs 12 ozs, still warm, lifeless but adorable bundle, I cried for her and for myself. Then I remembered that they were now reunited, and I gave thanks that the other remaining females of our family, my sister and I, could at least console ourselves that we didn’t lose them both at that time.

And I wrote this little poem:

A poem for you, Eileen

You were my sister,
Yet I never met you,
I found your burial place
on your 36th birthday.
There’s a bond between us,
nothing can break it,
DNA can prove it.
I feel a loss
That we never met,
Yet today there’s a peace
With that loss,
that I
Know where your body
Burying bodies is necessary,
Burying emotions doesn’t work.
They surface, even a child’s,
Even 36 years later.

You were my sister
Nothing will change that.
I know you and love you
Even though I never met you.
You were real, a real person.
You existed in my life,
Even though the walls of a womb separated us.
Eileen, I do love you.
Rest in peace.


  1. I am at a loss for words, so instead, I am sending love, hugs and lots of prayers your way. I am glad you found out some information. And I hope it helped just a little bit. xoxox.

  2. What a lovely story. I feel for you. I lost a nephew 18 years ago at birth and I remember all about it..

  3. Such a moving post. My brother was 17 when he died and I can't imagine not knowing where he is. I believe that there is more sensitivity now toward stillbirths and a parent's and family's need to grieve and remember. That is certainly witnessed by the care that the hospital took in giving you as much information as they could. Times change.

  4. NEG- Thank you, much appreciated. It's all a long time ago, but seeing the knitting pattern(previous post) reminded me.

    Gaelikaa- it's true, we don't forget.

    Stephanie- I'm sorry that your brother died, that must have been terrible for you. And you're right, there is more sensitivity now- thanks to Stillborn and Neonatal Death Associations.

    Thank you all for your lovely comments.

  5. This is powerful stuff. And beautiful too. Thanks for sharing your feelings. Eileen lives on after all; she just had an impact on me.