As the grave markers are cleaned and reset, or replaced, and as new signs go up to designate the historic nature of the sites, the focus is turning toward filling in some of the blanks about the people buried there.
"Some family members have said the person was never discussed," said
That meant the family member was buried before relatives even knew of the death. The use of numbers instead of names on the graves, Mack-Hardiman said, was done "out of consideration for the family's privacy. It was the ultimate depersonalization for these individuals."
The privacy concerns were a response to the huge stigma that society at the time attached to mental illness and developmental problems. Today, for those who are able to track down their relative's grave sites, it is a difficult to comprehend.
"It's hard to see that their family member is just a number," Mack-Hardiman said.
The voices of those families are being heard.
Legislation has been introduced in
"Families are seeking the information, but it is very difficult to find it in some cases," Mack-Hardiman said. "They want to know what happened to their relative, and you can't get a death certificate unless you know when the person died and where the person died."
The stated purpose of the bill is "to mark headstones or otherwise memorialize patients interred at state mental health hospital cemeteries," meaning the numbers will be able to have names attached.
Many are already discovered. As part of the museum exhibit, a scrolling video plays through hundreds of names of people known to be in the cemeteries. Still, it is only a start.
In blunt prose, using the language of its times, the museum displays explain how, beginning in the late 1800s, large and often architecturally impressive residential facilities were constructed by the state for the safety, treatment and education of people determined to be incapable of caring for themselves. These were individuals who were designated, in the clinical terms of the time, as idiots, morons or lunatics, or whose physical disabilities were more than their families could or wanted to handle.
State hospitals also became homes for those with such illnesses as epilepsy or tuberculosis, and for "feeble-minded women," who were described as "inherently promiscuous women of child-bearing age and their crime prone offspring." The goals of the facilities were originally well thought out, said
"Initially they looked toward educating their patients and providing structure, but over time, partly due to overcrowding, they lapsed into a more custodial role," he said.
As a result, patients were forever sequestered, destined to remain anonymous and voiceless.
The populations of the institutions changed over the course of a century, as treatments developed for TB and other illnesses, and as care evolved so that more families could keep loved ones at home. Some facilities are now part of the state prison systems; other are closed entirely.
But thanks to the work of the volunteers and
"Monument for the Forgotten" will be on display at least through the end of the year at the
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