Funds Weighed for State Graves
BOSTON (AP) _ When he was 3 years old, Al Warner was taken from his mother’s arms. He was an old man when he found her again and knelt and put flowers on her grave.
No headstone decorated the burial site at a state institution, just a plain cement marker bearing the number 132.
``Numbers on her back _ I thought it was horrible,″ said Warner, who spent years in state institutions himself.
Thousands of people who were once patients at state institutions in Massachusetts have only those ``numbers on their backs″ _ markers in overgrown, forgotten cemeteries _ and sometimes even less than that, activists say.
They deserve more, Warner and others argued May 26 at the Statehouse, where the State Administration Committee heard a bill that would provide funds for cemetery upkeep.
``This is a matter of pride for those of us who have been diagnosed with mental illness, saying back to the community, `We’re not garbage you can just throw away, but rather, we’re human beings,‴ said Pat Deegan, a former patient at Danvers State Hospital, who has coordinated the campaign for the bill.
Deegan said the Department of Mental Health alone has estimated that there are 18,000 such graves on facilities it operates that go back to 1850.
And that doesn’t count the graves on the grounds of other state institutions, such as the state schools meant to serve the mentally retarded, public health hospitals for the chronically ill, and state prisons, the activists said.
Bill Capone, 59, who spent decades of his life in a state school and state hospital, said better care should be taken of the cemeteries.
``This was not a movie. There were no actors or sketches. This was real. These people went through a lot,″ he said.
Rebecca Macauley, 45, a patient rights activist and a former mental patient herself, said the former patients felt those buried in the cemeteries were ``family.″
``We have what they call in the military the camaraderie of shared suffering,″ said Macauley, who believes she has found a site in Northampton of the unmarked graves of former Northampton State Hospital patients.
Mental Health Commissioner Marylou Sudders testified for the bill, which would set aside the first half of 1 percent of the proceeds of a sale, lease or any other disposition of former sites of the Department of Mental Health, Department of Mental Retardation, Department of Public Health and Department of Corrections.
The state retains ownership of the cemeteries when it sells such properties.
``Maintenance and memorialization are necessary at all such sites,″ Sudders said. ``While numbered markers pinpoint graves on the grounds, we must not forget that men, women and children with names and faces are interred.″
Activists want some money appropriated right away and envision markers on the graves that would at least include the person’s name and dates of birth and death. Such markers cost about $60, activist Ruthie Poole said.
Warner is now 85 and retired, living in Amherst.
The grave of his mother, Ceceil Warner, was located three years ago at a cemetery at a DMR institution in Shrewsbury where patients from the former Worcester State mental hospital were buried.
Now, he says, he’s made arrangements so she has a ``nice granite stone.″
``Your mother’s always the best in the world, no matter what she was or what she wasn’t,″ he said.