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.
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?
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, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/primary-resources/lobotomist-bedlam-1946/