For the past few years I have tried to get the attention of state and federal lawmakers to pass a law in New York State that would provide for the release of patient names; dates of birth and death; and location of graves, of people who were committed to State Hospitals and Custodial Institutions during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries who were buried in unmarked or numbered, anonymous graves, whether they be in formerly state, county, or city owned cemeteries. (See My Story) I also asked for a searchable, digital database, available to the public to be included in the bill. On August 22, 2011, I finally got the opportunity to meet with Kate Munzinger, Senator Joseph Robach’s Chief of Staff. Ms. Munzinger took the time to listen to what I was asking for.
The reason why I’m blogging about this issue again is because the bill in New York State has not yet become a law. There are caring people in several states who are pushing to get a similar law passed but state and federal representatives will not give them the time of day or they won’t even consider passing such a law because of the misinterpretation of the federal HIPAA Law. I want to help those people in other states by sharing with them what was shared with me. If not for Laurel Lemke, Chair of Grave Concerns Association, I don’t think I would have received the attention of Senator Robach. In 2004, Ms. Lemke and others, had fought for this cause, and managed to amend law 6678 in the State of Washington that allowed for the release of patient names for the purpose of memorialization. She emailed me the bill which I in turn gave to Kate Munzinger, Chief of Staff; Tim Ragazzo, Director of Operations & Legislation; and Senator Joseph Robach. A bill was drafted and introduced to the New York State Legislature in March 2012. The title of the bill is: “An act to amend the mental hygiene law, in relation to patients interred at state mental health hospital cemeteries.”
Western State Hospital, Pierce County, Washington, has 3,218 patients who are no longer anonymous. Grave Concerns Association has raised funds and replaced 1,200 names since 2004. The forgotten have been remembered with dignity. With community fund raising efforts and countless volunteers, inscribed headstones that identify the patient’s name, date of birth and death, have been placed at the graves; and a searchable, digital database has been uploaded to the internet. In contrast, New York State, with 22 or more former state custodial institutions combined has upwards of 11,000 or more people buried in anonymous graves who through no fault of their own have been erased from history. Willard State Hospital alone has close to 6,000 patients buried in anonymous graves.
Sherry Storms, Stacie Larson and Laurel Lemke, Grave Concerns Association, John Lucas, countless volunteers, and the State of Washington deserve to be recognized for their ground breaking, painstaking work, and above all, their model should be copied in every state in the union. The New York State bill is important and necessary in order to restore the dignity and personhood of the thousands of people who were incarcerated and died at former New York State Insane Asylums (later renamed State Hospitals), and State Custodial Institutions (for Feeble-Minded and Epileptic persons). When the bodies of the inmates were not claimed by family members, they were buried in anonymous, unmarked graves. Many of these unclaimed bodies went to medical colleges and pathology labs for the furtherance of medical science. These people deserve to be remembered, and we need to remember what happened to them so that we do not repeat the mistakes of our ancestors.
It is my hope that the State of New York, and all states, will pass similar legislation and follow the Washington State – Grave Concerns Model. They have done a great service for the community and the nation by naming the forgotten; setting up an exemplary, searchable, digital database; and trying their best to remove the stigma of mental illness.
Grave Concerns Association
Volunteer Carla Wutz, descendent of Michael Wutz, updates the data base on the Grave Concerns website.