Sunday, July 1, 2012

We too have lived

After my walking tour of the abandoned Medfield State Asylum property yesterday, I set out looking for the cemetery where many of the people who called the hospital home were buried. If you blink while driving along Route 27 you'll miss this sign that is obscured by greenery.

From the opening of the hospital in 1896 until the influenza epidemic of 1918, patients who died while in the care of the hospital were buried in one large anonymous grave at the Vine Lake Cemetery. Deaths were not uncommon at the asylum. The first annual report of the institution stated that 24 patients died in the first five months of operation.

From 1918 through 1988, the hospital buried patients in their own four acre cemetery. This is the cemetery that I visited yesterday. It is fitting, somehow, that the cemetery is difficult to find. The people buried here disappeared with a blink of the eye from the view of society. All that remained of their lives were fist sized stone grave markers engraved with a number. The person's catalogue number, the only memory of who they were, are in some cases erased from the erosion of water and wind. 

In other cases, the number remains but the records of who they were were long since lost. People--mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, children of someone where banished from the view of society and left in the care of the state. All the remains of these individuals is a number etched in stone.

In 2005 a group of citizens including a troop of dedicated boy scouts. cleaned the cemetery, scoured public records, and raised funds to place gravestones in the cemetery that remembers the names of those who were erased from time. Many--though not all--of the lives of those forgotten are now remembered.

A newspaper article quotes a former hospital volunteer who said "I was surprised by the lack of respect shown to these people. It was almost like warehousing, it made it smooth and quick. It was to keep things anonymous. A lot of people felt the mentally ill people are not as important in life or death. It was a combination of factors, perhaps because they were considered less important than others in society."

I'm left to wonder the stories of these people lost to the cemetery. I wonder about the lives they lost and the families that have forgotten them. I also, at least in the case of Elvine Kiwisaun, wonder about the families that do remember them.

As I walked through the cemetery I thought about the collective importance of people like Fred Colson. Dead at aged 18. Perhaps he was considered insane for a developmental disability, masturbation, or hearing voices. Fred, and all the named and unnamed people lost to this cemetery, remind me the importance of witnessing and resisting any effort to devalue, repress, and forget the power of the human experience--normal or not, sublime or distasteful.

It isn't as if these forgotten lives were a thing of the distant past. The staff of the Medfield hosptial were reducing people to numbers in this cemetery as last as 1988. Here on the right, is among the last of the patients at the then called Medfield State Hospital that were forgotten and lost until 2005.

Spend a moment today thinking about what you aren't looking at. Turn your attention to the things you avoid. Look at what you think you cannot look at. We owe it to people like Number 650, Fred Colson, Robert Smith, and Elvine Kiwisaun. We owe it to ourselves.


  1. Holy God, doc, they're all kids! Died in their teens and twenties, those for whome we could read their markers

    This reminds me of Opacity, if you're interested

    1. Thanks for the tip about Opacity. I'll be rooting around that website for awhile!

      Yes. Many of the people in the cemetery were young. The youngest child at the asylum that I've located was for months old. The oldest was well into their 80s. Many many many died young. Remember that in this area medical care wasn't advanced and parents were often instructed (or wanted) to abandon their young who had birth defects. Many of the youngest patients suffered from a variety of catastrophic (and not so catastrophic) health problems--some of which can be cured totally in the modern era.