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Remembering With Dignity

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Gravestones awaiting installation outside Fergus Falls State Hospital

Gravestones awaiting installation outside the grounds of Fergus Falls State Hospital. Photograph by Sasha D. Warren, 2019. CC BY-NC 4.0.

Over the course of their history, Minnesota’s state hospitals were home to tens of thousands of people with disabilities or diagnoses of psychiatric conditions. Around 13,000 of those who died at these institutions were buried in cemeteries with only numbers to identify them. Remembering With Dignity is a group formed from members of Advocating Change Together and other self-advocacy organizations in 1994 with the goal of installing new gravestones in these cemeteries marked with names and dates in order to restore personhood to those denied it in the past.

In December of 1866, St. Peter Asylum for the Insane became Minnesota’s first institution built to hold the state’s “lunatics.” Less than one year later, the first inmate died. She and many others of the first deceased were buried in the city’s cemeteries. However, this soon became unviable, and St. Peter began burying the dead in a separate hospital graveyard.

Minnesota’s other state institutions followed St. Peter’s lead and buried their dead in separate graveyards. Wealthier families of some patients were able to either pay for a headstone or to have their loved one buried at another cemetery of their choosing. The 13,000 whose families could not afford this or who had no known family were buried at the hospital’s expense in plats with either a single number representing the order in which they died or nothing at all.

By the mid-1990s, when most of the state hospitals closed, some of these grave markers had deteriorated beyond the point of recognition or had been destroyed by vandals. Most of Anoka State Hospital’s first 145 wooden grave markers were destroyed by rot or grass fires. At Hastings State Hospital, this deterioration was so extensive that the site was unrecognizable as a cemetery by the 1980s, despite numerous efforts at repair by local volunteers.

In 1994, a group of disability self-advocates with the support of Advocating Change Together and other disability rights organizations based in the Twin Cities formed an organization called Remembering With Dignity. By checking available graveyard plats against state hospital obituary and burial records at the Minnesota Historical Society, they were able to create approximate indexes of who was buried in the cemeteries and when. In their view, recovering these biographical details is the first step to restoring a sense of personhood and dignity to those who died in institutions.

In February 1996, Remembering With Dignity made a first attempt to procure an official state apology for the forced labor, medical experimentation, sterilizations, shock treatments, and lobotomies endured by patients in Minnesota’s state hospitals. Senator Linda Berglin and Representative Betty McCollum, who sponsored the resolutions of apology, withdrew them after the Health and Human Services Committee removed all references to the cemeteries out of fear an apology might make the state liable for future action and funding commitments.

The group received state funding for the first time in 1997, which allowed it to order granite headstones with names and birth and death dates to accompany the numbered slabs. In 1999, it held its first dedication ceremony in Faribault in honor of the individuals buried there. This was the first of a number of dedications of new grave markers at Hastings, St. Peter, Anoka, Willmar, Cambridge, Owatonna, Moose Lake, and Rochester. In addition, Remembering with Dignity has hosted art and music shows to call attention to the unacknowledged personhood of patients and inmates of state institutions.

In 2010, Remembering With Dignity helped draft a new apology resolution sponsored by Representative Karen Clark that was approved and signed in June by Governor Tim Pawlenty. This was celebrated as a landmark in the acknowledgement of mistreatment and the human rights of disabled people in the state. However, enthusiasm was tempered for many by the fact that the apology coincided with extensive budget cuts to disability and mental health services.

As of 2020, Remembering With Dignity has installed approximately 8,000 gravestones in Minnesota’s state hospital cemeteries, leaving about 5,000 awaiting proper identification.

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Arc Greater Twin Cities records, 1946–2007
State Archives, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
Description: See especially “Remembering With Dignity project, 1996,” box 7 (151.I.8.2F).
http://www2.mnhs.org/library/findaids/00597.xml

Brooks, Jennifer. “In Graveyards of State Hospitals, Names Replace Numbers.” Minneapolis Star Tribune, October 21, 2013.
http://www.startribune.com/in-graveyards-of-state-hospitals-names-are-replacing-numbers/228496201

deFiebre, Conrad. “Concerns Stall Apology to Mental Patients.” Minneapolis Star Tribune, February 09, 1996.
https://search.proquest.com/docview/419766958?OpenUrlRefId=info:xri/sid:primo&accountid=12515

Grow, Doug. “Minnesota Finally Apologizes to Thousands of Mentally Disabled.” MinnPost, June 3, 2010.
https://www.minnpost.com/politics-policy/2010/06/minnesota-finally-apologizes-thousands-mentally-disabled

Henry, Anne. “2010 Legislative Changes for Disability and Mental Health.” Minnesota Disability Law Center, August 3, 2010.
https://mn.gov/web/prod/static/mnddc/live/past/legislation-summary/2010-Disability-Mental-Health-Legislative-Summary.pdf

Ladd-Taylor, Molly. “Conclusion.” In Fixing the Poor: Eugenic Sterilization and Child Welfare in the Twentieth Century, 211–226. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017.

McClure, Jane. “The Story of Us: 20 Years of MN Disability News Coverage Remembered, As Covered by Access Press - Pt. 2.” Access Press, May 10, 2010.
https://accesspress.org/the-story-of-us-20-years-of-mn-disability-news-coverage-remembered-as-covered-by-access-press-2

Radomski, Lauren. “Minnesota: Saying ‘Sorry’ for Treatment of Persons With Disabilities.” Twin Cities Daily Planet, March 31, 2010.
https://www.tcdailyplanet.net/minnesota-saying-sorry-treatment-persons-disabilities

“Remembering With Dignity.” Advocating Change Together.
https://www.selfadvocacy.org/act-programs/remembering-with-dignity

Rosario, Rubén. “Rubén Rosario: Dignity for Those Denied it in Life, Death.” Twin Cities Pioneer Press, July 27, 2013.
https://www.twincities.com/2013/07/27/ruben-rosario-dignity-for-those-denied-it-in-life-death

Related Images

Gravestones awaiting installation outside Fergus Falls State Hospital
Gravestones awaiting installation outside Fergus Falls State Hospital
Hastings State Hospital cemetery plat
Hastings State Hospital cemetery plat
Hastings State Hospital cemetery index
Hastings State Hospital cemetery index
Death and burial record from Faribault State Hospital
Death and burial record from Faribault State Hospital
Rochester State Hospital cemetery plat
Rochester State Hospital cemetery plat
Gates at Anoka State Hospital cemetery
Gates at Anoka State Hospital cemetery
Headstones at Fergus Falls State Hospital cemetery
Headstones at Fergus Falls State Hospital cemetery
Headstone at Anoka State Hospital cemetery
Headstone at Anoka State Hospital cemetery
Headstone at Anoka State Hospital cemetery
Headstone at Anoka State Hospital cemetery

Turning Point

In 1999, the disability self-advocate group Remembering With Dignity holds its first dedication ceremony for new gravestones in honor of those who died while institutionalized at the Faribault State School and Hospital.

Chronology

1866

The St. Peter Asylum for the Insane opens as Minnesota’s first state hospital.

1867

A patient dies for the first time at St. Peter Asylum in August and is buried in a cemetery in the city.

1881

The first burial is recorded at Faribault State School and Hospital on May 6.

1895

The 522nd burial is the first to be recorded by St. Peter State Hospital in its cemetery index.

1901

The first person is buried in Hastings State Hospital cemetery on July 16 without a grave marker.

1977

The Minnesota School for the Deaf and the Braille and Sight Saving School on the Faribault State Hospital campus are transferred to the Department of Education.

1978

Hastings State Hospital closes.

1982

Rochester State Hospital closes.

1994

The Remembering With Dignity group forms from members of Minnesotan self-advocacy groups—including, most consistently, Advocating Change Together—to restore biographical information about former inmates of Minnesota’s state hospitals and institutions.

1996

Remembering With Dignity’s first attempt to get an apology from the state fails when it is stalled in the legislature.

1997

Remembering With Dignity receives state funding, in the amount of $200,000, for the first time.

1999

In November, Remembering With Dignity holds its first dedication ceremony at the state hospital cemetery in Faribault.

2005

The Fergus Falls Regional Treatment Center closes. The Cambridge State Hospital Cemetery is renamed “The Garden of Remembrance” and is outfitted with flower gardens and benches thanks to the advocacy of Remembering With Dignity and allied groups.

2010

An official state apology for past abuse is approved by the legislature and signed by Governor Tim Pawlenty. Pawlenty tempers the apology by adding that he thinks the employees acted in good faith and in accordance with scientific belief.

2012

Remembering With Dignity holds two ceremonies to honor and remember individuals buried in the state hospital cemeteries in Rochester and Hastings.