Annmarie Schieding brought the first angel to her daughter’s grave even before the headstone had been placed, when 10-year-old Stephanie’s body lay below a simple plaque and a layer of snow. In those early days, Annmarie visited her three, four times a day, and her plot at Oak Grove Cemetery was a sad and barren place.
“My angel is here,” she remembers thinking, as she placed the porcelain figure with its flowing robe in the snow.
In the 10 years that have passed since that February day, Stephanie’s grave became Stephanie’s garden, blooming with purple and white pansies and daisies and guarded by figurines of the angels and dolphins that the little girl loved in life.
“It’s my way of taking care of my daughter, still,” Schieding said. “Bringing those little gifts to her is my way of saying, ‘I love you and I miss you and I wish you were still here with us.’ ”
But last Thursday, when Schieding arrived at the cemetery, she discovered that Stephanie’s garden had been looted.
The angels had vanished, leaving rings on the polished stone where they had sat for years. Two dolphin statues were missing; the bracelets her friends had made for her were gone; a cracked figure of the Virgin Mary had been taken. Some stuffed animals, a rosary, and an amethyst ring remained.
“I’m kind of hoping it was a child,” Schieding said. “Maybe they didn’t understand that what’s left behind at a cemetery is left behind on purpose.”
Peabody police are investigating the theft, Captain Dennis Bonaiuto said, and increasing patrols through the city’s cemeteries. Bonaiuto said the city used to have a problem with people stealing items from graves to sell as scrap metal, but that subsided. He has worked in Peabody for 27 years, he said, and he has never seen a reported theft of keepsakes from a child’s grave.
“I think there’s a very strong possibility that it could be younger kids that really do not appreciate the significance of their actions,” Bonaiuto said. “They’re certainly not aware of the heartbreak that this is causing for the family or the community at large.”
Oak Grove Cemetery is public property, said Kevin Quirk, acting superintendent of cemeteries in Peabody. With about 1,000 graves on about 6 acres, Oak Grove is one of six cemeteries the city owns, he said.
“How do you keep watch on every single grave, 24/7?” he asked. “It’s nearly impossible.”
It is hard to say how often theft from gravestones happens, Quirk said, because most people do not report it.
A flag holder at his own father’s grave in a Peabody cemetery was stolen, he said, and once, a woman reported that someone had dug up flowers she had planted.
“I think it happens in every cemetery,” Quirk said. “There’s really no way to control it.”
Annmarie Schieding said she will take the amethyst ring still left on her daughter’s grave home with her, and she will encase the base of the grave’s candle holder in cement.
Stephanie Schieding died of a rare form of kidney cancer just three months shy of her 11th birthday. Her mother still has trouble speaking of her in the past tense.
For years after Stephanie’s death, Annmarie visited her grave every day. Now, she goes several times a week.
“I talk to her while I’m there,” Annmarie said.
A heart shape in a cloud, a penny on the ground, a dragonfly that alights on her skin: Annmarie feels they are messages from Stephanie. “I’ll say, ‘Yes, I got your message; you were thinking of me.’ ”
There are two stolen figurines most precious to Annmarie. The first is a little girl angel with gently spread wings and the same haircut with bangs that Stephanie got right after her cancer diagnosis. The second is a dolphin with a purple-haired mermaid on its back. When Stephanie’s hair fell out during treatment, she got a purple wig that she adored and wore constantly.
Stephanie used to tell her mother that she loved dolphins because they are free and jump out of the water into the sky.
“She wanted to swim with dolphins,” Annmarie said. “She wanted to do so much.”
Annmarie has affixed two letters to her daughter’s grave: one pleading for the return of the mementos, and the other telling the thieves that she will pray for them.
“I would just say to these people that they need to understand that these are tokens of love, mementos left by people who loved these people who have passed away,” she said. “We leave them there for them. For us. Not to be taken.”