National Alliance on Mental Illness
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Honoring the Forgotten

By Brendan McLean, NAMI Communications Coordinator

Across the country, thousands of unmarked graves and remains of individuals from psychiatric hospitals stand forgotten. It’s estimated that more than 100,000 of these unmarked graves exist across the United States.

In Georgia, 25,000 nameless graves were discovered, buried under leaves and trash with only numbers identifying each of the rusted headstones. Many of those numbers are improperly recorded and have no confirmation can be made of who is buried there. In Oregon, 5,000 canisters of cremains were found on storage shelves. 600 cremains were found in cardboard boxes in Hawaii. These are just a few of the horrific examples of individuals who died in psychiatric hospitals and whose deaths were not properly recorded.

Tales like these have inspired people around the country to work together to restore these cemeteries, and restore dignity to the individuals who were turned into outcasts, died and were forgotten.

In 2009, The Gardens at Saint Elizabeths: A National Memorial of Recovered Dignity was dedicated in Washington, D.C. to honor those individuals who lost their lives. The memorial will be built on the grounds of Saint Elizabeth’s Hospital because of its history of moral treatment promoted by mental health reformer Dorothea Dix. Visitors to the memorial will walk through gardens, past reflecting pools and a Weeping Wall.

The Gardens at Saint Elizabeths will feature markers representing all 50 states and the District of Columbia, listing the state hospitals where patients are buried, and will be maintained and operated by individuals living with mental illness.

To help raise funds to build the memorial a traveling exhibit has been created to explain the story of the Gardens at Saint Elizabeths. Included in the traveling exhibit are the exhibit DVD, brochures and bookmarks and a collection of seeds, including forget-me-nots, which people can plant in their own recovery gardens.

“We hope that every consumer can visit the Washington, D.C. memorial and come away inspired and empowered to work for a full life in the community for their peers,” says Sue Bergeson, senior vice president of consumer affairs for OptumHealth Public Sector, who is supporting the traveling exhibit.

Also included the Gardens of Saint Elizabeths website is a restoration guide to begin to learn how to successfully restore a cemetery in your own community. With the continued growth of the prominence of national memorial and increased efforts in restoring forgotten cemeteries around the country, hopefully a voice will be raised for those who had none.