Fixing a final
By ELMER PLOETZ
News Southtowns Bureau
Buffalo News - Buffalo, Erie, New York
22 June 2002
Katherine M. [Speich] Kopp ©
- Overgrown and
neglected, the Gowanda Psychiatric Center cemetery holds the
bodies of about 1,000 former patients.
But a restoration effort is under way.
- (Town of
- The first time Sandra Hooten
walked through the tangled berry canes and burdock stalks at the
old Gowanda Psychiatric Center cemetery, she wept.
- It's a cemetery without a sign.
Only numbers - not names - are engraved on the stone and metal
- indicating the final resting
places of about 1,000 patients from the facility.
- In fact, the state isn't even
sure who most of the people are who are buried there.
- The records apparently were lost
when the Psychiatric Center closed in 1994.
- The cemetery's condition is
something Hooten and the other participants in Operation Dignity
want to change.
- The group plans to clean and
mark the Wheater Road Cemetery in Collins and restore a similar
one nearby that has at least 500 other, mostly unmarked graves.
- The project has special
significance for Hooten, her husband, Glenn, and many of the other
people who staff Housing Options Made Easy,
- a group run by and for former
mental health patients.
- In another place and time, they
could have been the ones being buried by the numbers.
- Sandra Hooten recalls when she
first went to the Wheater Road cemetery.
- It was as part of a program
teaching peer advocacy, the part that focused on the social stigma
of being a mental patient in past eras.
- The graveyard was more overgrown
than it is now.
- "I just wept," she said. "I just
couldn't believe life could be so . . . disregarded. It's not
something you forget."
- Across the nation, peer groups
like HOME have pushed for states to look at the places they buried
their dead from mental hospitals and to try to restore dignity to
their resting places.
- In Georgia, for example, a
30,000-plot cemetery at what once was the world's largest mental
institution was restored.
- The National Association of
State Mental Health Program Directors has called for every state
to restore its cemeteries.
- "There's not much we can do now
for people who died years ago, but we can acknowledge that their
lives mean something to us today, their struggles,
- and we're going to see that it
doesn't happen again," said Kathy Lynch, a peer advocacy leader
and recipient affairs specialist for the state Office of Mental
Health's western region.
- More than 50,000 people are
buried in cemeteries run by the Office of Mental Health, about
half of them in upstate New York.
- According to Sandra Hooten,
patients who died at Buffalo Psychiatric Center apparently were
buried in cemeteries throughout the city and suburbs.
- But patients at Gowanda, which
opened as a "homeopathic hospital" in 1898, were buried on state
property if nobody claimed their bodies.
- At its peak, the hospital had
- The hospital's original Wheater
Road cemetery, home to about 1,000 graves, isn't identified in any
- It's accessible only by a dirt
road leading over a knoll and down to Clear Creek.
- Patient files misplaced
- "One of the really unfortunate
things about the Gowanda cemetery is that most of the cemetery
records are missing," said Darby Penney,
- director of historical projects
for the Office of Mental Health. "Most of the other facilities,
most of the records are still available.
- "Somehow, when Gowanda got
closed, all their records were supposed to be sent to Buffalo, but
the Buffalo Psychiatric Center says they never saw them.
- Somehow in the haste of closing,
things had been misplaced."
- Penney, who is also assembling
an oral history of the mental health system in conjunction with
the New York State Archives,
- said it's a goal that hits close
- "I am an ex-patient myself," she
said. "A lot of us, when we walk in there, are like, "Had I been
born 20 years earlier, I would have been one of those people in
these graves.' "
- The Gowanda and Collins
correctional facilities that took over the Psychiatric Center's
grounds have found the records of patients who died after 1960,
- The second cemetery, on Route
62, has a wooden sign marking it and is more cleanly mowed, but in
some ways it's physically worse off.
- Lost to the center's past
- The approximately 500 stones are
flat to the ground, and clumps of grass clippings and storm wear
have combined to almost erase the numbers identifying them.
- Some of the later stones have
thin metal plates identifying the patients, but they are rapidly
tarnishing and wearing away - even some from as late as the 1990s.
- The patients themselves were
often forgotten as well. Many became lifelong residents of the
- Through much of the 1900s,
placement in a mental hospital was seen almost as a funeral in
itself to patients' relatives, according to Peter
- a social worker for more than
two decades at the hospital. Frequently, the patients were lost
forever to mainstream society.
- "When I was hired in the 1970s,
I was assigned to track down patients' families when they died,"
- . "The conversation would be
like: "Who? Louie? Louie! Nah, he died 20 years ago.'
- "It was a protected environment
for the people who were so misunderstood in their own communities
and in their families.
- There was a sense of community
there, but the cemetery reveals that in the final analysis you are
"No. 231.' "
- Fixing past mistakes
- At its peak in the 1950s, more
than 93,000 patients were in state mental institutions
- About one-third of them were
patients who wouldn't even be considered mental patients today,
including people suffering from
- Alzheimer's disease, epilepsy
and alcoholism, according to Roger Klingman, a spokesman for the
Office of Mental Health.
- The Office of Mental Health has
committed money from its capital budget to restore all of the
cemeteries at its former psychiatric centers and has already
started work in the Long Island area,
- but HOME's efforts are likely to
allow local residents to shape what work is done.
- "They really were the
forgotten," said Glenn Hooten. "They'd get dumped in the state
- Sandra Hooten said she hopes
that more volunteers will come forward.
- The goals are modest.
- "Do we want a memorial up there?
A plaque?" she said.
- "We hope to start some kind of
planting program down there, and of course ongoing maintenance."
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