Baby Jazlene, buried through the kindness of strangers
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For her funeral, Baby Jazlene was dressed in a white organza dress.
It had ribbons and tiny roses, made by Allison’s Angel Gowns, a charity that sews funeral clothes for young children.
Catholic Cemeteries donated a plot at All Saints Cemetery in Des Plaines. Funeral director John Glueckert supplied the casket, labor and hearse. Bevel Granite has agreed to provide a headstone.
The funeral was organized by a nonprofit group called Rest in His Arms that has arranged Christian services for 33 babies who were abandoned or whose bodies went unclaimed by family.
About 75 mourners attended the service, all of them strangers.
Jazlene’s mother, Brianne Branham, wasn’t there. But it wasn’t because she didn’t love her baby, she says.
“If I’d have known this was happening, I would have been there,” she says.
Branham, 31, seemed to crumple when she learned of the funeral from a reporter who knocked on the door of her home on the South Side later that day, saying, “This is, like, a complete shock,” and wiping away tears.
She thought she had arranged to donate her baby’s body to science.
Branham says she’s a single mother with five other children ranging in age from 6 to 14, all of them well cared for by relatives.
She grew up near Irving Park Road and Central Avenue on the Northwest Side, where she attended Schurz High School and loved going to the Portage Park pool.
It hasn’t been an easy life, Branham says. She’s worked at a Hyde Park liquor store and also had jobs as a receptionist and certified nursing assistant but says she’s struggled with drinking and holding onto jobs.
When she unexpectedly found herself pregnant for a sixth time, she says she considered terminating the pregnancy.
“I didn’t really have nobody to help me,” she says. “I tried to get an abortion with her, and I was too far along.
“Of course, I felt guilty after she was born,” she says.
Of the birth, she says, “I thought it was a blessing.”
Jazlene Branham’s short life began April 3. Despite giving birth only about 23 weeks into her pregnancy, her mother says the baby seemed to be doing well at the Lying-In Hospital at the University of Chicago Medical Center.
“I got to hold her hand,” Branham says. “She was great.”
But the preemie never left the hospital. Her health deteriorated. Before her death at just under 7 weeks old, Jazlene was fighting sepsis and strep, according to her death certificate.
“I was there when she died,” Branham says. “It was an infection — I mean, like, literally in a couple of hours. She was all puffy, and she looked totally different.
“This was my first pregnancy that went wrong,” she says.
After her baby’s death on May 20, she says, “I went through all kinds of emotions.”
Branham says she was working at the time of Jazlene’s birth but soon lost her job. “I went through a bad thing. I was drinking a lot.” But she says she hasn’t had a drink in weeks now.
At first, the infant’s body was held at the University of Chicago, then was transferred June 29 to the Cook County medical examiner’s office. A staffer from the county morgue tried to reach Branham and her relatives by phone and registered letter, according to Becky Schlikerman, a spokeswoman for the medical examiner’s office.
Branham isn’t sure what happened but says she doesn’t have a working phone. She got a letter, dated Aug. 19, from the morgue that mentioned the options of a $100 cremation, with a possible waiver of the fee, or donating the body to science.
“I couldn’t afford the $100 cremation,” she says. “I called my mom in Ohio, and she couldn’t afford it.”
She says she talked with her mother about donating Jazlene’s body to science and decided that’s what she wanted: “I thought it would help save a baby’s life.”
The letter Branham got includes a main number for the morgue and an extension for a staffer who works with families on indigent burials. She says she called and spoke with a man who told her that, if she decided on donation, the death certificate would be “all I would pretty much be getting.”
She says she already had Jazlene’s hospital bracelet and a onesie she wore. Trying to make a decision about the arrangements was painful, she says, and, after being told she’d get the death certificate, “I didn’t want to know anything more than that.”
The medical examiner has no record of contact from any of the baby’s relatives, according to Schlikerman.
The Anatomical Gift Association of Illinois, which works with medical schools, doesn’t accept the bodies of anyone under 18 out of concern about the sensibilities of medical students. “The feeling . . . is that might be too young to deal with,” says Paul Dudek, executive vice president of the group.
So the medical examiner’s office turned to Rest in His Arms. “The office is able to work with friends or nonprofit community groups that seek to make funeral arrangements,” Schlikerman says, “as a service to taxpayers” because otherwise the county would have to pay for the cremation or burial.
Rest in His Arms placed a newspaper death notice for “Baby Jazlene” that said, “Please come be the family she needs.”
About 75 solemn people, including members of the Knights of Columbus, responded. They gathered for a Mass earlier this month at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Buffalo Grove. Almost every person who went up to receive Communion reached out to touch the white, doll-sized closed casket.
From the pulpit, the group’s Susan Walker thanked all who came.
“It is really hard to bury babies,” Walker told them. “I’m grateful that you’re here today to claim as a daughter this little girl, our Baby Jazlene.”
Suzanne Matusiewicz took her children out of school to attend the service.
“I feel like it’s important to be here,” says her 15-year-old son Joseph, a student at Carmel Catholic High School in Mundelein. “I try to come for every single one because I feel like it’s my calling to help bury them.”
Deacon Jim Pauwels told the mourners, “Let us pray, with all our hearts, for Jazlene’s parents.”
At All Saints Cemetery, David Santos easily lifted the casket alone and placed it in the small burial space. He and another cemetery laborer, Alfredo Benitez, say that after infant burials they go home and hug their kids especially hard.
Kris Murray was at the Mass, holding tight to her 18-month-old daughter, Amelia. Afterward, she said, “I’m sure somewhere a parent is suffering.”
A few hours later, at her home, Branham looked at photos from the church and cemetery and wept.
“It’s beautiful. I’m glad she had a nice service.”
Walker was surprised and saddened to hear the baby’s mother hadn’t known about the funeral.
“We would have helped her” with the arrangements, Walker says. “I’m so sad to hear that was the mom’s situation.
“We share her pain,” Walker says. “We would do anything she needs.”
She says that would include sharing photos from the Mass and holy cards and, if Branham wants, arranging a prayer service at the cemetery when the headstone is installed.
Branham says she appreciates that Walker and the others provided a funeral for Jazlene: “It’s nice to know there were people who did that.”
Shown the death notice for her baby, she asked: “Can I keep this?”