The crusade to reclaim the dignity of thousands of forgotten people buried in numbered graves on the grounds of New York State’s mental health hospitals has made great progress. Now, advocates are celebrating their success and asking for more.
The Museum of DisABILITY History in Amherst is hosting a new exhibit, “Monument for the Forgotten,” chronicling the efforts to restore the neglected institutional cemeteries. The cemeteries are the final resting place for those who died after being turned over to the state for care, and their restoration has been undertaken with help from mental health organizations, local historians, municipal governments and dozens of volunteers.
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 David Mack-Hardiman, associate vice president of People Inc., sponsor of the project. “Others said it was some time before they were notified that the person had died.”
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 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 Albany by Sen. Joseph E. Robach, of Rochester, and Assemblyman Harvey Weisenberg, of Long Island, to make it easier for people to access state mental health records of people who have been dead at least 50 years, so family members, preservationists and genealogists can learn who is buried in the numbered plots, and when and how they died.
“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 Western New York, there are thousands of graves in cemeteries associated with Gowanda State Hospital, Buffalo State Hospital, the Niagara County Almshouse, the Craig Colony for Epileptics in Livingston County (which included names but no dates on its tombstones), the J.N. Adam Developmental Center in Perrysburg (originally built as a sanitarium for tuberculosis patients) and West Seneca Developmental Center.
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 Doug Platt, the museum’s curator.
“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 People Inc., the cemeteries attached to them are getting a new chance at life.
“Monument for the Forgotten” will be on display at least through the end of the year at the Museum of DisAbility, 3826 Main St. The museum is open Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. The exhibit has its grand opening at 11 a.m. Today. It will include a panel discussion on “Institutional Cemetery Restoration: Why We Restore.”