Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Mental Hospitals, Asylums, and Cemeteries

I came across an article in the Tacoma Daily Index today that describes the efforts of the Grave Concerns Association to replace the numbered stone grave markers in the hospital cemetery with markers showing the name of the deceased along with birth and death dates. The cemetery contains the remains of more than 3,200 psychiatric patients, buried between 1876 and 1953. The Association is working to restore the cemetery and replace all the numbered markers with named ones. 50 markers are being installed as part of the "Dignity for 50" effort.

Unmarked graves, or graves marked only by a number, were the norm at psychiatric facilities (asylums, mental hospitals, etc) throughout the 19th and a large part of the 20th century. I was involved in a project to survey a local cemetery for additional unmarked graves in the earliest section of a cemetery associated with a mental health facility. The facility is still active, although burials are now marked by a standard flush-set stone marker showing the individuals name. The use of numbered markers has been explained as a way of avoiding the stigma of of having a family member in such a facility. Usually the facilities maintain a map and an index which is accessible to family members so they may visit the gravesite if they wish. Keep in mind, however, that depending on the time period and the area, sometimes one could be sent to such an institution because there was no where else to go - they served as "catch alls" for the homeless and elderly with no family.

By the middle of the 20th century the use of numbered graves was beginning to change, from what I've been able to find out. It may not have completely vanished - it's not a widely studied topic - but it's certainly becoming the exception rather than the rule. Many state psychiatric hospitals have closed, leaving behind massive graveyards and limited documentation. This becomes a problem if and when the land is sold off for development - relocating large cemeteries is difficult and expensive. The cemeteries aren't always abandoned when the hospital moves on, fortunately, as you can see on the site of a fellow Graveyard Rabbit Grave Addiction where you will find photos and history of the Columbus Ohio mental hospital cemeteries.

Efforts such as that of the Grave Concerns Association not only provide a fitting memorial for those who were segregated from mainstream society in both life and death, they serve as a visible, concrete, statement about the changing attitudes towards mental health care in this country. Hopefully it will also provide a little closure and comfort for families who may have had loved one's graves lost among the tangle of numbered stone. Sphere: Related Content

No comments: