Mental hospitals trying to identify graves of patients

Tuesday, June 24, 2003

NAPA, Calif. -- Beyond a worn wire fence in the brush behind Napa State Hospital rest a blacksmith, a seamstress, a piano tuner and more than 4,000 other mental patients buried between the 1880s and 1924.

"Here rests a woodman of the world," reads the headstone of Richard Kinsman, born April 18, 1854, died Nov. 18, 1910.

But the headstone is toppled, and most of the graves have no markers at all -- symptoms of a deliberate neglect that is only now being corrected around the country as attitudes toward mental illness change.

In California and other places, volunteers working with state officials are making new efforts to catalog the identities of long-forgotten mental patients, create memorials and erect grave markers.

Before the advent of medications and other treatments, many people admitted to mental hospitals lived out their lives there and often died anonymously because of the stigma of being in an institution. Grave sites at mental hospitals were commonly marked with numbered sticks instead of headstones or plaques to protect patient or family confidentiality.

'It's a profound thing'

Brian Coopper, a spokesman for the National Association of Mental Health, recently visited the old cemetery at the Las Vegas Medical Center in New Mexico and was disappointed at what he found.

"It's an amazing thing to see what should be a sacred place as a cemetery is actually done with a shabby fence around it, overgrown with weeds, markers are missing," Coopper said. "It's a profound thing to look at how people were disrespected after death as they were in life."

But now, amends are being made.

In May, Texas Gov. Rick Perry signed into law a measure allowing for release of information about patients buried at state mental hospitals and providing permission to install grave markers. Cataloging of the dead by volunteers is under way.

In New York, hundreds of suitcases from dead mental hospital patients were discovered in state archives and are being examined as part of a project by volunteers to identify the dead and mark old grave sites.

One of the most extensive efforts is at Georgia's Milledgeville Central State Hospital, where as many as 25,000 people were buried in segregated, black and white sections, with rows upon rows of small rusted markers bearing only numbers, no names.

'All be equal in death'

In the past few years, a bronze angel, ornate new gates and a stone wall were erected at the entrance with the help of about $50,000 in donations. The state provided prison labor to clear the overgrown brush.

"The state hospital staff explained that in the late '60s and early '70s, the groundskeeping staff had not wanted to mow around the markers, so they pulled them up," said Larry Fricks, director of the consumer relations office at the Georgia Mental Health Department. "You think about it, when people die, no matter what their status was in life, we should all be equal in death."

The state is trying to get the cemetery on the National Register of Historic Places.

In California, more than 25,000 mental patients were buried on the grounds of state hospitals, according to records examined by the California Memorial Project, a group of volunteers who include former mental patients and loved ones.

Two part-time state employees are assisting the volunteers in their project to catalog the patients, find their gravesites and ultimately erect some kind of plaque to honor the dead collectively.

Democratic state Sen. Wes Chesbro took a tour of the Napa cemetery last year and was so moved by what he discovered that he pushed a bill into law allowing for the project.

"Our society bears the responsibility," he said. "It's really a reflection of our history of recognizing disabled individuals in our society as not fully human."

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