Formerly known as "Creepy-chusetts, Strange-chusetts".

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Belchertown State School Cemetery, Belchertown (or lengthy thought about myself)

Also read: Belchertown State School
When one of our guys died, all that we'd have would be a graveside service...[T]he way this would be done is that the undertaker, whom I got to know personally, would come up with the body in the limo, and we'd go to the cemetery, and he'd be saying things to me like, "Now Bob, this guy was a nonentity. Let's not take a lot of time." -- An interview to Robert Perske, a former chaplain at the Kansas Neurological Institute.* Italicized by Shuko K.T.
Nonentity, the word stuck in my head forever. Such a disrespectful remark in a solemn scene of a person's death. Why would he say something like that? Were such remarks out of his character, or just a glimpse of an everyday life at an institution?

The official name of the cemetery is the Warner Pine Grove Memorial Cemetery. Albert Warner was a former resident at the Belchertown State School. Since at the age of three until he was transferred to a work release program in 1937, he had been a ward of the state. His mother, Celia Lindsey Warner, had been mentally ill, and Albert was declared as "feeble minded."

Only a year after the school openinig in 1922, eleven residents died. A record shows a small burial ground was dedicated in 1925, a mile away from the campus.  The cemetery was landscaped in 1938, and numbered cement blocks-- like any other state institutions in Massachusetts -- dotted the field. The last recoded burial was in 1977. After the closure, the cemetery was neglected and dilapidated, some even remarked the property as "mud-hole."

Albert Warner kept visiting the dilapidated cemetery. Distressed by the state of the cemetery where his friends and his mother were buried, he organized a restoration project. A monument was erected in 1987, recoding all the names who were buried there.

He organized more restoration project. All he wanted was a "respectful recognition of the individual gravesites."** In 1994, the state agreed to conduct more refurbish project. Every graves was marked by granite stones with a name, DOB, and DOD, and the cemetery was renamed as the Warner Pine Grove Memorial Cemetery to pay honor to his dedication.

Albert Warner died in 2006. Although no new burials were allowed after the closure, Albert and his wife, Agnes who was also a former resident, were permitted to be buried right next to his mother's grave.

My mind goes back and forth with Albert Warner's story in Massachusetts and Robert Perske's memory in Kansas: "Now Bob, this guy was a nonentity. Let's not take a lot of time." I keep asking you the question: Why did the undertaker call the deceased resident nonentity?

Robert continues:

I'd stand at the head, and he's stand at the foot, and I got a hold of a prayer book that had all kinds of prayers for the dead, and I read him that entire book while he just stood there. But I don't think he was mad about it. He knew I cared, and it was so wrong to not have any sort of service.*

But why didn't Robert get angry with the undertaker calling one of his "guys" as a "nonentity"?  Was the culture of nonentity so normalized to the point that the chaplain didn't question the undertaker's behavior? Robert was somewhat sympathetic towards the undertaker, which intrigues me quite a lot.

Blaming the behavior of the undertaker is easy, but I need to question how the history of mass institutionalization affected the undertaker's behavior.

People can get used to anything. The following is a footage of The Last Great Disgrace aired in 1972. Geraldo Rivera (some may find surprising) investigated the atrocious, inhumane condition at the Willowbrook State School on Staten Island:

Hieronymus Bosch's Hell, I have no word other than that. But for workers, that's their everyday life. They might find the condition upsetting first, but they would adjust to the environment soon, otherwise they had to leave the job. Do we have the right to call the worker as a facilitator of institutional abuse? Think about Robert, he had done more than he could do in an environment where residents were called nonentities. Workers were also victims of the systematized neglect.

If you read 1964 reportage about workers' mistreatment and brutality to patients at the state run institutions, you may feel enraged, you may quickly judge them as cruel facilitators of institutional abuse who were born in that way. But, as the report carefully explains, many workers also endured a lack of respect. Think about it, if you work under long hours with low pay in a horrid, overcrowded environment, we don't want to admit it but the correlation between the brutality on patients becomes apparent.*** (Also think about the Stanford Prison Experiment.)

How about me? I've been covering state hospital cemeteries for almost three years. A naive outsider is now an apprentice historian. The spine chilling sensation  I used to feel when I saw numbered graves at state hospital cemeteries is somewhat faded because I now know that's how things were done, there's no secret about it. It's inhumane but that's how things were done. Historically, the institutionalized were -- or dear readers, do I say "are"?-- treated as nonentities.

But what are buried under those seemingly dispassionate arguments? The misery-- normalization of inhumane treatment; the food looks like vomit, the stench of urine and feces, the sound of scream and banging, and the sight of naked, contorted and strapped bodies. Would the process of stripping my imagination and empathy from my inquiry be the path I should take?

Orthodox historical inquiry praises detaching emotion for the sake of dispassionate, objective reading of materials, I see the point. Twisting historical facts and irrational emotion are dangerous concoction to tragic events.

But if I lose the very sense first time I saw numbered graves and the feeling of sorrowful rage and admiration when I met a survivor of institutional abuse, I should quit altogether. It's just a failing attempt of mastering the intellectual twaddle.

Locate Belchertown State School Cemetery: Google Map

You should also read observations made by a psychologist, Jason Mihalko about his work experience at a state hospital and about mass institutionalization: "My First Trip to Asylum" and "Northern Ohio Lunatic Asylum." 

*Fred Pelka, What We Have Done: An Oral History of the Disability Rights Movement (Amherst: U of Mass P, 2012), 55.
**Robert Hornick, The Girls and Boys of Belchertown: A Social History of the Belchertown State School for the Feeble-Minded (Amherst: U of Mass P, 2012), 143.
***Bedlam 1964, 


  1. Sometimes I don't know how to feel. It's easy to find a sense of comfort looking at images from the past -- those people -- back then -- there is a distance with history and we can brush off the dark feelings with historical distance.

    Except we still treat people like non-entities. Our ways might be more sophisticated now, we may seem to be more cultured or humane. However in the end, the people whom society judges as other are still relegated to the borders of society and ignored, lost, and forgotten.

    That's why I like work like this -- documenting and lingering on the past. It informs our future and raises important questions like how to be learn to see the other as ourselves.

    1. Hi Jason,

      I made a question about "feeling" and "history" to myself because my way of documenting history has been through experiencing space and listening to the voice, memory of the experienced; I’m struggling to fathom a sense of history through texts written from "above."

      On the other hand, learning the 17th century English witch trials was an interesting process. Like you said, the dark feelings and intense hostility against the other are told thorough historical distance, obtaining a fantasy like quality where imagination, speculation, and supposed truth are mingled together without much distinction. Instead of judging the behavior of the 17th century people as “unenlightened,” I attempted to tune myself to their experience, tried to understand how the fear of the Devil and being accused as a witch had a real resonance to their everyday life.

      I came a long way so far and will have a looong way in my intellectual journey. I’m fortunate to have you as a comrade. Have I said that before?


  2. interesting questions....
    i keep thinking that those institutions were installed to do good. they were meant to help people. the situation before was worse. or at least in the beginning. the intentions were good... but a lot of bad things happened.
    the problem is people. there are evil people and there always be evil people.. :( and then there are people who try to cover up for the evil people because they dont know better or because they think thats best "for the organization" or whatever. in my time in the us i worked in one lab with an evil, evil boss. but nobody said a word. everyone kept quiet and did whatever he demanded. i could not stand it and spoke up. and i lost my job... (and was forced to sign something that i would shut up about it, so i usually do, but sometimes i cant.. like now..)
    its by no means the same as what happened in those hospitals etc, but it gave me an insight into how horrible, horrible things can happen. there were 5 or so people in my lab. only i spoke. the others even denied what happened when questioned. who were they to believe? me..? the boss who presented himself as a perfec, lovely, friendly person? his other employees who said nothing "bad" ever happened? i think thats how terrible things can go unnoticed and its very sad.... it frustrates me a lot but gave me a little more understanding why things turn out as they sometimes do, and also to keep an open mind.
    but i digress.... :)

  3. sooo... what i meant to say, as you also said, i think good people can do bad things, simply because of the situation they are in. they are afraid and do whatever to make the best of it, for themselves, even when looking from the outside those choices are often not logical at all...
    although i was angry, i could understand my colleagues. but they did not think ahead; in the end they all, but one, lost their jobs as well.

  4. Hi CaT, how are you doing?

    Gosh, it sucks! Sorry to hear that.

    I've read a bunch of discussions about the origin of the asylum.

    One argues the asylum is a tool of controlling people (both inside and outside of the institution). Another argues that it started as well-intentioned organizations to help people in need. But social and administrative demands and constraints made the asylum turn into a place for custodial care.

    Hence both side agree it created situations like I mentioned in this blog entry. I think both sides have its point.

    But it doesn't quite answer why good people would do unsavory things. "best 'for the organization'," like you said! Is organization, system taking over our modes of behavior to prolong the system that we don't necessarily like? If so, how can we fight against that?


  5. i think many people are afraid to fight "the system", and rather just follow orders so that they themselves do not get in trouble... and because others do nothing, they do nothing, and then the others are reinforced that doing nothing is the best, and so it continues. i think. most people wait for someone else to take the first step, and only when they see that it will not hurt them, they will follow. the person taking the first step sometimes gets shot down, and sometimes nothing happens after that, or everything!
    i find it all very complicated to think about... :) so i enjoy reading your thoughts! i am certain there are people who are just "evil", but most are just selfish, and for that reason do only what, to them, seems best for them...

    anyways, now that the asylums are closed (which is probably best), don't you think for some people there now is no place to go anymore? no help etc..? i sometimes think about that when i see some of the homeless people in the boston streets....

    1. Being awake that you are in the system that you deplore is an awful thing.

      But I feel many are not even aware that they are in a certain system and they don't like it. The system is like the air. You breathe, you don't question why you're breathing. Once you question why do I breathe? You'll stop breathing, you're in a big trouble!

      I sound very Japanese because we think society and its order as something like the air.

      They follow orders like they breathe. Don't question because they instinctively "feel" they'll be in trouble if they stop and think about it.

      Many asylums are closed. Many are unable to find an alternative. Unfortunately, homelessness and especially, imprisonment are common stories. We closed the asylum for good, right?

    2. I should add: being awake is an awful thing, but it's a step toward liberation, if we are wise and strong.

  6. My boyfriend's grandmother was a resident here for over 30 years of her life. As a Father's Day gift this year, we are trying to track down more of his genealogy since all we have is his mother's name.

    Does anyone know where I could find the old records from this school? Would they be available at the Belchertown Town Hall?

    Thanks so much!