State must aid in finding records of those who died at hospital


April 4, 2011 

Construction workers dug on the grounds of Eastern State Hospital in January after remains of people thought to be Eastern State Hospital residents in the 1800s were found on the grounds.


At issue | Feb. 23 Herald-Leader article, "About 50 bodies to be exhumed at Eastern State; they were probably buried before 1860"

In February, 50 sets of unmarked human remains were found during excavations in preparation for a new building on the Eastern State Hospital grounds on Newtown Pike.

Development here is the result of a complicated land swap in which Eastern State Hospital will switch from this location to the University of Kentucky's Coldstream Research Campus, thus enabling Bluegrass Community and Technical College to move to the hospital grounds.

This is regarded as a positive development for both the hospital and the college, but relatives of those who were treated at the hospital and who wish to access records of a family member's mental-health odyssey will not find the going easy.

And for those who wish to find records pertaining to the deaths of relatives on state hospital grounds, the task is nearly impossible.

The Eastern State Hospital Cemetery Preservation Project has sought to restore an abandoned cemetery site at the hospital containing the mass graves of close to 7,000 and to aid in helping to identify the many thousands more who died while in treatment at the hospital over the past 200 years.

If the hospital is anything at all like other state hospitals of similar size and age, it is quite likely thousands of unmarked graves remain on the original 200-acre site.

For years, relatives and advocates have been asking both the hospital and state for records pertaining to deaths on hospital grounds, and their invariable response (often delivered quite rudely) was that, to their knowledge, no such records exist.

However, in February after questioning by the Herald-Leader, state spokeswoman Gwenda Bond announced the state had done a search and no records were found.

Left unanswered was when this search was conducted or how. It seems very unlikely that no records exist. Yet the cemetery project's genealogist, Mary Hatton, has doggedly recovered thousands of burial records for relatives (from various scattered state and public archives) on her own.

The state hospital operated at its peak in the 1940s, a mere yesterday in terms of a medical bureaucracy that, as a rule, has a penchant for record keeping.

Why then the resistance to relatives and others who simply want access to these records? It's hard to say, but what can be said is that in many states, state hospital burial records are made available.

Given the generally abhorrent treatment many mental institution patients received in the past, a number of states have begun to issue official apologies to living relatives. Encouraging families to reunite with deceased relatives through available records is an essential step in reclaiming family history and dignity. And an official apology would allow families to heal and might also lead to beginning an open and more public dialogue concerning the present-day treatment of mental-health patients.

The Kentucky Department for Mental Health and Mental Retardation Services currently contracts with the Bluegrass Regional Mental Health-Mental Retardation Board to manage the hospital, which it has done since 1995.

It should be troubling to both the state and its contractor to know their current policies and attitudes regarding access to information are very much in keeping with practices from the mostly tragic 200-year history of the hospital.

It is our own responsibility to do our best to reconcile our past. Other states have recognized the need to work with relatives and advocates to restore family histories and to effectively make government more transparent and responsive. A mandate requiring the state to aid relatives and advocates in locating records is an important first step.

Bruce Burris of Lexington is a founding member of the Eastern State Hospital Cemetery Project.

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