Santa Cruz Indymedia :
Santa Cruz Indymedia

Commentary :: Poverty & Urban Development

American "Insane Asylum" History: Giving Names To Numbered Graves

A nationwide movement to put names on the numbered gravestones in cemeteries at America's mental hospitals and abandoned "insane asylums" is underway. "It has been said that no families have come forward to claim their relatives (buried here)...WE are their family."
American "Insane Asylum" History: Giving Names To Numbered Graves
By Kirsten Anderberg (

In 1997, an ex-mental hospital patient and activist, Pat Deegan, was walking her dog on the property of the then closed Danvers State Mental Hospital, located 30 minutes north of Boston. (Danvers State Hospital opened in 1878, and has been closed since the early 1990's). She came upon an overgrown, abandoned cemetery, with only numbers on small round markers. Soon she found a second overgrown cemetery of numbered markers. (It was estimated there was about 40 years of overgrowth covering the cemeteries). Pat soon began facilitating slide shows of what she had seen, as well as organizing ex-patients for field trips and action.

The Danvers State Memorial Committee (DSMC) was soon formed thereafter, with the goal of restoring and properly memorializing the two Danvers State Hospital cemeteries. The DSMC nominated a steering committee of 12 people, of whom most were ex-patients. Marie Balter, a famous mental hospital patient turned activist, whose story was told in a movie with Marlo Thomas playing Marie, called "Nobody's Child," was one of those on the steering committee. One of the first hurdles they faced was determining who was responsible for cleaning up, and then long term maintenance of, the cemeteries. A decision was made to press the state to be accountable for the cemeteries. But there were still problems, such as the Dept. of Mental Health (DMH) had the records for the closed hospital, and a private entity was soon to buy the state hospital property, and then the activists would have to get permission to clear the cemeteries from them, etc. The DSMC also reports there was considerable anger present at early meetings. Many were still very angry at past abuses they had suffered at Danvers State. They were adamant that the truth, not the sanitized version, of the hospital's past be told. Some members of the DSMC felt the group was not the place for that anger. But the group did not shun those who were angry, and instead were able to harness their anger into a powerful force. Due to these discussions, the DSMC decided to ask for a formal apology as part of the return of dignity to those buried with only numbers on the hospital grounds.

The DSMC has left a well-detailed map (, so to speak, of how a grassroots organization got bureaucracy to deal with the issue of these unmarked graves, as well as concise instructions on how to memorialize unmarked graves in your own area on a local level. The DSMC was formed in 1997, and their website addresses issues such as how they organized themselves, and how they found "room for anger," as well as how they worked through conflict. They detail how they sought out media coverage to break gridlock with bureaucracy, and used field trips to boost the group's morale. The group also became a lightning rod for activism that ex-patients had not had access to before. People who had writings about their experiences at Danvers, who had made art about their stay at Danvers, for example, began to emerge. They became active in legislative lobbying, as well as testifying before legislature, building coalitions, developing public education and outreach, etc. By 1999, the issue had gone from a local to state status. State legislators began introducing bills to have all cemeteries at state facilities restored and properly memorialized, which would affect other cemeteries on state facility lands, such as prisons, state hospitals, public health hospitals and state "schools for the retarded." When the DSMC organized testimony for one legislative session, all the supporters wore a button with the picture of grave marker #115. A lone round marker, with a number, on many people's labels, was a powerful symbol. As a DSMC member testified, she said "Who is #115? We don't know." Other supporters present held up effective pictures that were enlarged, of the cemeteries in decay.

It is not clear why these headstones contained a number only. Some believe the numbers were used to protect families from the stigma of having a "mentally ill" person in their family. Another argument raised addresses patient confidentiality. Some people feel it is a breach of confidentiality to share either a list of former patents buried at the hospitals, or to put their names on the grave markers. The first question raised is whether the reason for the confidentiality is shame and stigma associated with mental illness, and if that is the reason, then the names could help fight that stigma. A second argument for names replacing numbers is that state "schools for the retarded" in the same states that used numbers for mental patients, often put whole names on their former patients' gravestones. If there was no breach of confidentiality in naming patients at state "schools for the retarded" on their gravestones, why would such a breach occur when applied to the state's mental hospital patients? Regarding a breach to release a list of names of former patients, the benefit outweighs the risk, is one argument. The DSMC, for instance, is a well-organized group of ex-patient activists with a coherent plan, timeline, funding, etc. They say they want to offer dignity to other ex-patients who were not respected or treated with the societal norm at burial. Some say the numbers on the graves were just the quickest, cheapest way to mark the headstones. I suspect indifference was the cause. Indifference on the part of the hospital staff, and indifference on the part of society, and indifference on the part of their own families who put them there in the beginning and left them there in the end. Indifference and stigma. Hospital carpenters made coffins for patients who passed on in the beginning, but eventually the state bought the coffins and numbered markers at Danvers.

Besides leaving an invaluable record for others regarding grassroots organizing and direct action campaigns, the DSMC also leaves us a clear written document about how they got the graves properly marked with names and dates, how they changed laws, etc. In 1999, the DSMC began looking at a strategy for naming the buried. The issue of confidentiality was raised and the committee decided that putting names on grave stones was not an issue of confidentiality, but rather one of respect. Patients had not been asked if they wanted to have their name on their grave. It was hospital policy to put numbers on graves and that policy most probably came out of a sense of shame and a desire to protect families from the "shame of mental illness," the committee argued. For example, an old letter was found during research into Dixmont Mental Hospital, written by the family of a patient, upon being informed that their relative died at Dixmont. The letter told the hospital never to write them again and that they would not be coming for the body.

The DSMC has been working with many entities for years now to fund and facilitate the clearing of brush and landscaping of the cemeteries, as well as paying for long-term maintenance, proper headstones, and proper research into the names where records were lost. With 768 graves to identify, the task before the DSMC was daunting. They found an old cemetery ledger with 150 names corresponding to grave numbers. For others, they discovered the death certificate records for the town of Danvers listed Danvers State Hospital as the place of death of many patients, and often it said they were buried at the "asylum cemetery" or "the state hospital cemetery," but the grave numbers were not recorded. Finally, in 2000, the brush was cleared from the Danvers State cemeteries, and at a celebration, a bulb was planted next to each numbered grave, to blossom in the spring. So far they have identified 542 of the 677 people buried in the larger of the two cemeteries. A memorial wall of some sort is planned for those whose names are never found.

In addition to Danvers State, another 10,000 numbered graves are located on former state hospital, school, and prison grounds across Massachusetts. At Bridgewater State Hospital's former complex, a cemetery behind the chapel and morgue has 50 markers and although there is no list of the names of those buried there, it has been asserted they were former DMH patients. Foxboro State Hospital has two cemeteries, which buried approximately 1,100 former DMH patients in its cemeteries, but they are not on the hospital grounds. They are about 1/8 mile from the hospital. The names and corresponding grave numbers are lost, but the stones do have their DMH number on the back of each numbered marker, so that may help eventually. Gardner State Hospital is a former DMH facility with as many as 600 unidentified former DMH patients buried in their. Grafton is another closed DMH hospital, with its cemetery off site also. 1,041 former DMH clients are buried there. Their 3 acre cemetery has a complete list of the names and corresponding grave numbers. Taunton State Hospital sent its DMH patients that died to the pauper graves at 2 local cemeteries, thus no one knows how many were buried there. The Westboro State Hospital is still open, and no cemeteries have been found on site. The whereabouts of their former patients who died are still being researched, including plots listed as "State Hospital Plots" at a nearby local cemetery. As you can see, this issue is not limited to Danvers, and it is not limited to Massachusetts either.

Another mental asylum with numbered, instead of named, graves on site, is the site of the old "Athens Lunatic Asylum" in SE Ohio. When it opened, in 1874, the Athens Lunatic Asylum was built to house 544 patients on 150 acres. But by the 1930's, the asylum had expanded to 1000 acres and was housing 1600 patients. The asylum had about 2000 patients in the 1950's, when it held its highest patient population. According to the Athens Asylum's website (, "The reason for the ever increasing population was the lack of criteria for admittance; patients in the asylum included those that were epileptic, menopausal, alcohol and tubercular victims, and, also, seasonal visitors that otherwise would be homeless." Later, this same site says, "It was common for homeless people, tramps and hobos to become 'patients' of the asylums seasonally for shelter and food, and then "elope," or slip away when the good weather returned. Families would often submit their elderly relatives to asylums because they lacked the resources or time to deal with them appropriately. The problem with overcrowding developed because the institutions had no established criteria for accepting or rejecting patients into their care. Rapid growth in populations caused patient care to suffer. In the Athens Asylum the patient population jumped from 200 to nearly 1800, with an insignificant alteration in staffing. The community found that these institutions were an easy means to remove unwanted people from society. There was no effort to provide any other programs or support, because the state was paying for the asylum." The staff to patient ratio was 1:50. The Athens website also reminds us that "the typical meaning of "asylum" at the time was a safe haven with little likelihood of departure."

The hospital grounds at Athens hosted gardens and a dairy, as well as orchards, a farm, and vineyards, and became nearly self-sufficient. Fresh water on the property came from springs and wells but as the patient population increased wells had to be dug. They also had to buy heating coal and kerosene for lanterns used in all the buildings until 1895. I would assume kerosene lamp-lit asylum tunnels could be pretty scary at night. The weird shadows the windows paint on the afternoon walls gives one the creeps, even when abandoned now for years. The way the hospital was built, you could only exit and enter from the center building.

Like Danvers, the cemeteries on site contain those patients who died at the asylum. It is unclear whether there are two or three cemeteries at Athens. The graves are in military-style rows. Although the graves only have numbers, there are burial records with the patient names matched to the grave numbers, dating back to 1880, although the asylum opened in 1868. The death records are divided into males and females. So there is a male number "7," and a female number "7" grave. The only way to tell which #7 is a woman and which is a male is to look at where the original gravestone was placed. In the beginning, it is believed the burial grounds were segregated by sex, although in time, it is believed both sexes became intermingled in the burial grounds. Another anomaly is that the first female death, #1, is recorded as being buried in 1880, yet the first male burial records begin with patient #64 in 1880. There is no record of who the first 63 men buried there are. In the death records were the patient names, number on grave, along with a date, and there was room for comments such as the religion of the patient, whether they received a colored or private headstone, if and when the body had been taken from the site and who conducted funeral services. Oddly, some private headstones with names and information were placed behind the numbered graves on the grounds, and it is suspected these were placed there by family members or loved ones. There are also some red headstones from the state, with a number, a name, and dates of birth and death. The first of these state stones with names was numbered #716. There are also some records of male patients' bodies being "donated" to Ohio University and these male patients received no numbering. The last number for a female death entered was #847, and the last number for a male death entered was #1117, in 1972, when the hospital closed.

Minnesota is another area where unmarked graves are being replaced with proper names of deceased patients. In 2003, named grave markers were placed on 128 graves in the Oak Knoll Cemetery in Willmar, MN., while tens, if not hundreds more unmarked graves of former residents of the Willmar State Hospital were found on site. In 2003, in East Central MN.,
a celebration was held to honor and celebrate all 354 former Cambridge State Hospital Residents who now have their names on their graves. By 2000, it was discovered this was a problem of epidemic proportions in America. Tewksbury State Hospital in Mass. recently discovered an estimated 10,000 unmarked graves in its 3 cemeteries. The former Milledgeville State Hospital in Georgia is working on the restoration of 30,000 graves in its cemeteries. Dixmont was a mental institution in Western Pa., named after Dorothea Dix, famous mental health rights activist. Dixmont opened in 1862 and closed in1984. More than 1,300 graves, marked and numbered on small stones, can be found in the woods on the Dixmont property. The state of Pennsylvania continues to preserve a 1-acre cemetery where 1,300 former patients are buried. Many states in the U.S. have begun to restore state hospital cemeteries with local grassroots organizations, often inspired by the DSMC, leading, at the helm. Activists in this area have pretty clear goals. In general, they are asking for: 1) Funding for clearing of overgrowth and landscaping of the cemeteries, 2) Grave markers with Names and Dates, not numbers as identification, 3) Funding for continued maintenance of cemeteries, 4) A Public Apology from state officials. Some additionally are asking for a memorial or museum space on the cemetery grounds to help society from repeating past mistakes, and to ensure ongoing support for the project.

In the 1800's, people were being put into mental institutions for all kinds of things: wives and daughters who did not obey their husbands or fathers were sent there, as were "angry people," alcoholics, people with depression, women in menopause, people caught masturbating, and certainly disobeying the status quo was grounds for questioning one's mental health also.
From 1840 to 1890, reports claim the amount of people hospitalized for mental illness leapt from 2,500 to 74,000. There were reportedly over 500,000 patients in mental institutions in America in 1960. Burying these large numbers of patients became laborious for the institutions. At Northampton State Hospital (NSH), which opened in 1858, most of its patients were buried on the grounds, up until approximately the 1920's. But patients at NSH had no family to claim them, and when died became state property, so in the 1920's, these unclaimed bodies became cadavers for medical schools via the state, eliminating some of their cemetery needs. With severe overcrowding, more patients had to be restrained in the hospitals. And more shock treatment, as well as extreme treatments such as lobotomies, came into vogue around the 1930's. As lobotomies became more quick and easy, "traveling lobotomists" came through towns. One "lobotomist" of that era performed 3,000 lobotomies by himself. This only subsided once drug therapy was introduced on a large scale, such as the use of Thorazine. As more people were drugged, less people were institutionalized for their epilepsy, menopause, alcoholism, tuberculosis and "seasonal homelessness." But as more of the drugged patients were sent away from the hospitals' nearly self-sufficient farms, gardens, etc., they were sent away from sustainable lifestyles, into city labor pools. Additionally, in 1972, the patient labor laws were enacted, prohibiting the use of patient labor for farming and other chores without pay on hospital grounds, which had good and bad sides to it. At one point, 3 out of 4 patients were released from Athens, going to family homes, nursing homes and half-way houses. Homeless numbers soared. By 1986, U.S. mental institutions had 100,000 less mental patients than it had before the push for drugs instead of institutionalization. And as you can see from statements made above, homeless people often ended up at mental hospitals for food and shelter in earlier years, so homelessness and mental hospitals are inexorably intertwined throughout history. At times when we are talking about an unmarked grave in back of a mental institution, we are really talking about a grave of a homeless person who had nowhere else to go during a cold winter, not a person with "mental illness."

The reason that these state hospital cemeteries are being restored is not just about history, it is about the present and future. It is about making sure that people who die in state institutions are not marginalized any further. It is a cry to end the anonymity of the state's institutional patients in life and death. Pursuing dignity and respect for those who went before us can be a way of respecting ourselves today. Not only is it empowering for current and ex-psychiatric patients to see the community coming together to honor these previously unnamed dead, but it gives us all a moment to reflect upon what these numbered grave markers represent and how society has interplayed with the "mentally ill" in our recent past. It gives us a moment to reflect upon the stigma that mental illness has held for so long. Much of the cemetery reclamation has to do with individual healing, as well as community healing. Just as an overgrown, disheveled state hospital cemetery full of numbered markers makes one feel badly, to see a well-cared-for, community supported cemetery honoring the past lives of mental hospital patients is an inspiration. The cemeteries that have been reclaimed give people, especially ex-patients, a place to grieve, to remember, to return, as well as a place to collectively bring closure to painful episodes in lives. As one member of the Danvers State Memorial Committee, Mark Giles, has said about restoring state hospital cemeteries: "This is about respect. We have been neglected for too long... It has been said that no families have come forward to claim their relatives buried in these cemeteries. WE are their family."

Within the pages of the DSMC website you can learn more about the issues related to advocacy for state hospital cemetery restoration and how you can help identify and restore a cemetery in your area. They say the best way to get started doing state hospital cemetery restoration is to get out there with a camera, find the cemeteries, photograph them, and then bring that information to the local community and especially to ex-patients of the hospital. They stress the *process* as being as important as the end *product*. It may be easier for the hospital or state to restore the cemeteries quietly, but to involve ex-patients in the planning and restoration is a novel way to approach healing for several communities involved. When looking for a cemetery at local state hospitals in your area, the experts recommend finding out the history of the hospital. State hospitals established before 1900 usually had cemeteries on grounds. They recommend talking to ex-patients, as they often know the grounds very well. Old employees and local elder clergy can also have old knowledge of the grounds. If you cannot find the cemetery on the grounds, ask local cemeteries if they had pauper graves for the state hospital decades prior. Sometimes local cemeteries had "pauper fields" in the back of the cemetery, with numbered markers, just like at the hospital cemeteries. And some hospitals cremated the patients, so there is no cemetery to be found. Activists recommend using slideshows of cemeteries found locally and of cemeteries abroad that have been forgotten and then restored, to gather community interest. Field trips to the site of the unkempt cemeteries also helped establish commitment to the projects. When involving ex-patients in this activism, often patients will get angry. That anger can be funneled into positive action for change. The activists recommend monthly meetings, as well as allowing for anger and different personal reasons for wanting to participate in such a project.

New Comments are disabled, please visit


No events for this day.

view calendar week
add an event


Media Centers

Syndication feeds

Account Login

This site made manifest by dadaIMC software