Still marking lives

Remembering with Dignity holds three successive dedication ceremonies around the state Nine-hundred ninety three new grave stones were placed this […]

Remembering with Dignity holds three successive dedication ceremonies around the state

Nine-hundred ninety three new grave stones were placed this fall to remember people who died in Minnesota’s state institutions during the last century. That makes 5,050 down, 7,690 to go in order to mark all of the state’s anonymous graves.

The new markers were placed at state hospital cemeteries in Rochester, Anoka and St. Peter. Each community held its respective ceremony on the grounds of the actual cemetery. Each event featured music and speakers, with guests enjoying refreshments as they admired the new gravestones and the flowers decorating them. Each day began with dreary weary but luckily, the sun came out before each ceremony got underway. Speakers at the ceremonies included family members, former patients, and former and current institutional staff.

The cemetery restorations are done by Remembering With Dignity (RWD). The group’s goal is to honor those people who lived and died in Minnesota state institutions and were buried in numbered or unmarked graves. Many of the institutional residents were admitted without their consent, subjected to inhumane conditions and treatment during their lifetimes. After their deaths, many were buried with numbered markers, in neglected cemeteries. They were neglected, but thanks to Remembering With Dignity, they were not forgotten forever.

Thus far, RWD has laid new gravestones at seven former state hospital cemetery sites throughout Minnesota. The organi-zation’s current work is focused on cemeteries in Hastings, Moose Lake and Rochester.

Founded in 1994, RWD is a collection of disability rights, advocacy, and volunteer organizations working in rural Minnesota communities to restore state institutions’ cemeteries and place new grave markers on previously unmarked or numbered grave sites.

Cynthia Blesi, a former patient in the Anoka State Hospital, made the case for this restoration work. Now a member of the Mental Wellness Campaign for Anoka County, Blesi said she was “treated well and was able to learn, not just exist.”

“While many people living with mental illness can lead productive lives in society, some need to be hospitalized, like I did. But that does not make us any less important members of society. In some ways, it makes us more important, because a chain fence is only as strong as its weakest link. As a society, I believe we are morally and ethically bound to help those less fortunate than ourselves.” Blesi said.

Lenore Grinolds, told a very touching story of her grandmother, Farina Carlson, # 205, who was buried in the Anoka State Hospital Cemetery. Carlson was committed at age 25, when she had three small children at home.

“She did not get to raise her babies,” Grinolds said. Carlson’s husband put the children in an orphanage and left, never to be heard from again. She brought a family portrait to the ceremony. It was taken just before Farina was committed.

A former nurse at the Anoka State Hospital in the 1960s, spoke of her interest in RWD’s work. “I came home from work one day,” Siewert said, “and told my mother I had written down the names of the 110 women that I cared for so I wouldn’t forget them. And that is why I am here today. I did not forget them.”

Remembering with Dignity has established working relationships with local community groups in many areas across the state. More will be developed this year as the organization continues its work in Moose Lake and Hastings. As community organizers, members are committed to linking with disability community activists, government agencies, church groups, former regional treatment center employees, legislators, media professionals, and nonprofit groups.

Among the new gravestones linked to the St. Peter State Hospital was one for Ferdinand Steffen, once an orderly to Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman. Steffen died in 1898 and was buried off-campus at Resurrection Cemetery. Although all his descendents now live in Missouri and could not attend the ceremony, a military color guard was present to honor this U.S. Army veteran. A Bronze Star was placed at his grave and an obituary was read.

In most cases, RWD is able to research state hospital records to match the names with the institutional numbers. But the St. Peter ceremony had one mystery: an unknown grave. It turns out that number 2038 was an “educational skeleton.” After that person passed away, the skeleton was used for research and educational purposes, a common practice of that era. Around the turn of the last century, this skeleton was hung out in front of the on-campus doctor’s office. Photographs and anecdotal stories leave room for further investigation.

Halle O’Falvey is community organizer for Remembering with Dignity. She can be contacted at Remembering With Dignity at selfadvocacy.org. Remembering With Dignity is housed, managed, and administered by St. Paul-based Advocating Change Together.

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