The Forgotten Remembered

In the past 10 years, Remembering With Dignity has placed 2,500 markers on previously anonymous graves of residents of state hospitals, but funding for the group is imperiled by this session’s failure to pass a bonding bill.

Tucked into both the House and Senate bonding bills this session were funds to bring forgotten Minnesotans dignity in death.At cemeteries on the grounds of nine former state hospitals across the state are graves of mentally ill or developmentally disabled people largely hidden from society. From the late 19th century well into the 20th century, the practice of sending those suffering from mental illness to an institution was widespread.”There was a time in our society where it was considered a shameful thing,” said Mike Tessneer, chief executive officer for State-Operated Services with the Department of Human Services. “It was an attempt to protect the privacy of a family. No one today considers it humane.”

In the 1990s, the nonprofit group Remembering With Dignity began replacing anonymous numbered grave markers over approximately 12,000 plots with the names and dates of those buried in them. Entering its 10th year, the group has placed 2,500 identifying markers over graves. Lawmakers provided $200,000 in 1997 for the project and another $250,000 in 2001. This session, the House bonding bill had $250,000, while the Senate bill had $300,000. The Legislature eventually adjourned, however, without approving a bonding bill. Jim Fassett-Carman, community organizer for Remembering With Dignity, said he hopes a special session, if called, will allow a compromise on the money. Thanks to previous funding, a marker at the treatment center cemetery in St. Peter, for instance, no longer reads simply: No. 606. It now bears the name Charles Goll, as well as his birth year 1858 and death on Dec. 15, 1918. “The work of identifying the people buried-that’s the physical work, but the overall point is really to talk about community living versus institutionalization,” Fassett-Carman said. Supporters of the effort won a court case in Rice County in 1997 that forced the release of the names of those buried in the cemeteries.

While there has been sentiment that the group should raise funds privately, Fassett-Carman said replacing the numbers on the graves with names is the state’s responsibility.”Of course we’re getting donations from contributors,” he said. “(But) the vast majority of the money should come from the state, which buried these people in unmarked graves. They are the ones who chose to bury people without dignity. One of those people was Catherine Puchas, an immigrant from Austria in the early part of the 20th century. Puchas was deemed unable to care for her children and sent to the regional treatment center in Willmar in the 1920s. “People having relatives in an asylum was never talked about,” said Steve Dailey, Puchas’ great-grandson, who lives in Cottage Grove. Amy’s aunts and mom never knew what happened to her. We never knew the details.”Dailey heard of Remembering With Dignity and contacted the organization seeking information on his great-grandmother. Last fall he attended a special ceremony at the Willmar cemetery where Catherine Puchas is buried. “You think about how her and her husband sacrificed so much to emigrate,” Dailey said. It was nice to see she wasn’t forgotten.”Fassett-Carman said dozens of families have contacted his organization seeking information on a relative.

The group often places markers on graves for people who request them. Information on the grave is limited to names and dates, he noted.”It’s simple, but it’s honorable,” Fassett-Carman said. AWe don’t know what religious faith these people were. If a family wants to do a different marker, they can place their own. “Locating individuals isn’t always easy.For unknown reasons, some residents were buried in private cemeteries off state hospital grounds, he said.”In some cases, the cemetery has records of the people, but they weren’t given any identification,” Fassett-Carman said. AI don’t know why they were separated out.”Unfortunately, the practice of burying certain individuals without identifying their graves continues in Minnesota, he said. In about 50 percent of county burials, for the indigent, their graves are not marked with names, Fassett-Carman said.”Unless a friend or family member comes forward or a donation is made, there is no marker,” he said. AIn many ways, we are still not remembering people with disabilities.”

Provided by: the St. Paul Legal Ledger