Marking the graves of those long forgotten

Since 1994, Advocating Change Together and Remembering with Dignity has helped identify and mark more than 7,000 unmarked graves at institutional cemeteries across the state, including the site of the Hastings State Hospital Cemetery in Hastings, Minn. (MPR/photo Jeff Thompson)

I spent part of a day recently, walking an isolated tract of land near Hastings, looking down to find grave markers. As I did, I was struck by the fact that this bluff top land once considered useless became the cemetery for deceased residents of the Hastings state hospital.

The irony to me is that acreage once thought of as cast away land, now affords visitors a grand view of the adjacent Sand Coulee Natural Area.   It’s also the final resting place for more than 900 state hospital residents who were buried anonymously at the edge of Hastings and then forgotten.

My new Minnesota Sounds and Voices report on Morning Edition today, is about the effort to locate and identify as many as 15,000 people who died while at treatment hospitals around the state. Disability rights activists have spent years combing state records to find the names of the residents buried in seven cemeteries around the state at facilities in St. Peter, Faribault, Hastings, Fergus Falls, Moose Lake, Anoka, Cambridge and Brainerd.

The effort is led by the disability rights non-profit, Advocating Change Together and its Remembering With Dignity program.  Since 1994 they’ve placed markers with names and birth and death dates of more than 7,100 people who died while at state hospitals at a cost of about $1.2 million with most of the money coming from legislative appropriations.

By the mid-1980s the effort to close state hospitals and integrate residents into community care was picking up speed.  The forgotten cemeteries came to light through a variety of avenues including the curiosity of Mid Minnesota Legal Aid attorneys Anne Henry and Luther Granquist.

Every year the Remembering With Dignity organizers and volunteers have observances and place markers at cemeteries around Minnesota where state hospital residents were buried and identified with only a numbered brick.