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  • Writer's pictureKimberly Taylor

Asylum Gravesites for the Mentally Ill

Does anything about this tombstone look unusual?

I hope that you have noticed that this tombstone marks the grave of asylum patient number 168. So, who was #168? Was she a mother? A daughter? Someone’s grandmother? Sadly, we may never know anything more than that she was an asylum patient who was once thought of as only a number.

Possibly out of a combination of shame and state bureaucracy, the grave markers for patients who died in American mental asylums are marked with numbers instead of names, if anything at all. According to an article in the New York Times, author Dan Barry wrote that some 55,000 patients are estimated to be buried in anonymous graves in New York alone. Think about how many others are buried around the country with only a number to mark their grave. To me, this is not only sad, but astounding. It makes one think…were the lives of the mentally ill so unimportant that they did not deserve a proper burial? Remember, many families were ashamed of having a mentally ill person in his/her family. What this meant is that it would possibly shame the family name if their name were put on a tombstone.

Old confidentiality laws prohibited this anyway. These laws allowed anonymity for patients. This was usually a request made by the families who wanted to keep private the fact that one of their own was in an asylum. The laws, therefore, prohibited the sharing of these names.

I challenge you to visit any old asylum cemetery. It has likely been left to ruin. In the 20th century, once treatment for patients with mental disabilities moved away from the “institutional” style of treatment, the cemeteries were likely abandoned as well. Think about it. If a family was ashamed (which many were) that one of their own family members was an asylum patient, they would oftentimes forget about that family member and pretend as if he/she never existed in the first place. If that person never “existed,” then the chances of someone visiting their gravesite or keeping the gravesite tended to were unlikely.

Fortunately, many cities and state currently have ongoing projects that would help give a name to the many graves currently only marked by a number. This typically requires getting family members involved. Some cemeteries, like Letchworth Village in Rockland County, New York, have installed monuments to honor those buried in the cemetery there. The monument there not only lists the names of hundreds who have so far been identified, but reads, “Those Who Shall Not Be Forgotten.” This monument is sometimes the only reminder of their existence.

It wouldn’t feel right to not mention what is going on in my home state, Ohio. One of the largest asylums in the state still stands in Athens Ohio. Once known as the “Asylum on the Hill,” and “The Athens Lunatic Asylum,” this institution also includes abandoned cemeteries whose graves are marked with only a number. These cemeteries have recently been the focus of a restoration project led by the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and are now part of the Ridges Cemeteries Nature Walk. Cemetery walking guides are available at the Athens County Convention & Visitors Bureau. Then State Representative Jimmy Stewart (He served as a member of the Ohio House of Representatives from 2003 to 2008, and in the Ohio Senate from 2009 to 2011) helped our pass a bill making public the names of all persons buried with only numbered stones. This is an important, ongoing project that will help restore respect to the nearly 2000 former mental patients buried in the three cemeteries.

If you ever get to visit the old asylum, now referred to as “The Ridges,” you will not be disappointed. Please watch for my next post which will dig deeper into this Ohio asylum for insane people.

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