Fixing a final indignity

By ELMER PLOETZ
News Southtowns Bureau
Buffalo News - Buffalo, Erie, New York
22 June 2002

 

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 Collins)
 
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 markers
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 3,710 patients.
The hospital's original Wheater Road cemetery, home to about 1,000 graves, isn't identified in any way.
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 to home.
"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, she said.
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 hospital.
Through much of the 1900s, placement in a mental hospital was seen almost as a funeral in itself to patients' relatives, according to Peter Zimmerman,
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," Zimmerman said
. "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 statewide.
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 hospitals."
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."
 
e-mail: eploetz@buffnews.com

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