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Forgotten Cemeteries: Investigating Record Sources for the Mentally Ill

State hospitals and schools have a varied history as lunatic asylums, almshouses, and as schools for the "feeble minded," deformed, and needing to be reformed. Difficulties locating gravesites and/or records of ancestors who died while in state hospitals or schools could be a thing of the past.

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Type: Article
Resource: GenWeekly
Prepared by: Christine Sweet-Hart
Word Count: 620 (approx.)
Labels: Death Record 
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State hospitals and schools have a varied history as lunatic asylums, almshouses, and as schools for the "feeble minded," deformed, and needing to be reformed. Most patients, abandoned by family, with no next of kin, and without funds for a proper burial were interred in cemeteries on the hospital grounds. If the patients died in winter, they were shipped to local universities for use in medical studies. Sometimes they were not returned for burial. Many were immigrants whose family could not afford to bring them back home for burial, or elderly hospitalized for dementia. Most state hospitals had their own forensic labs, and the existing inpatients made coffins, burial pillows, and burial gowns. Graves were dug by maintenance staff. Until recently, only small numbered markers were all that remained to commemorate the lives of those who died there.

The exiting burial records are difficult to access for two primary reasons: Department of Mental Health (DMH) confidentiality issues and the closure of hospitals. In some cases, the land and buildings have been sold to private developers and the hospitals demolished. Often the land where the cemeteries were located was wildly overgrown and no money allocated for ongoing upkeep. Sometimes a cemetery was rediscovered only when someone came looking for a grave. Information in the records varies by institution, but usually contains name, date of birth, date of death, maiden name, parent's names, country/town of origin, cause of death, place of burial, and coroner. Annual reports of the institutions listing patient activities can be found in local libraries and the Massachusetts State Archives. The reports do not contain names, but do list the number of deaths and record patient activities within the hospital.

Difficulties locating gravesites and/or records of ancestors who died while in state hospitals or schools could be a thing of the past, if the Danvers State Memorial Committee (www.dsmc.info) has their wish. They are an advocacy group led by former Danvers patient turned activist Pat Deegan, PhD. (For more information on Ms. Deegan's activities see: http://www.patdeegan.com and click on the Current Projects tab. It is her wish that all of the forgotten cemeteries become memorials they way that Danvers has.

When Danvers State Hospital closed in 1991, there were no records to be found of any burials. Deegan interviewed former staff to find out where the records could have gone and was able to locate a photocopy of hundreds of names and numbers. She reviewed death records for patients who died at Danvers State Hospital and obtained a waiver from DMH to view their medical records for burial information. Patients who could not be matched with a numbered grave were memorialized on a wall of names with corresponding numbers at the cemetery site. Deegan is fighting to have DMH confidentiality issues lifted, to have formal markers that include the patient's names placed on their individual graves, and money allocated for ongoing upkeep of these gravesites. She feels it is not right to go out of this world as a number when you had a name.

After a presentation by Deegan's group to prominent legislators about the state of the cemeteries and the lack of records, a bill was drafted that called for a full accounting of all patients buried in state hospital cemeteries, as well as a plan for funding the continuous upkeep of the cemeteries so that they are not sold with the closing of state hospitals and their records and markers potentially destroyed by unsuspecting developers. Senate No. 34, An Act Relative to the Identification of Burial Grounds and Cemeteries, was introduced again in 2005 by Senator Frederick E. Berry and Representative Theodore C. Speliotis for consideration by the General Court. (For the complete wording and status of this legislation, see http://www.mass.gov/legis/bills/senate/st00/st00034.htm).

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2006.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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