By Lisa C. Newell, Neponset River House member and Riverside Peer Specialist
Just like last year and the year before, members and staff from Neponset River House made their way to the cemetery on the grounds of the Medfield State Hospital (MSH) on May 29 to lay flowers on the gravestones of over 800 patients who passed away while living there from 1918 to 1988. The gravestones are the only memorials of the almost 900 patients and because of this, NRH takes the time each spring to lay flowers on each of the markers to pay their respects and show solidarity, since stigma and detachment are still two issues that the mental health community must deal with to this day.
The hospital was originally founded in 1892. At times there were as many as 2,200 patients plus staff members numbering between 500 to 900. In its prime, MSH had its own farm that sustained much of the fresh food needs of the residents, including livestock and chickens. In 1974, the Department of Mental Health (DMH) entered into a consent decree with the federal court that resulted in relocating the majority of “mental patients” from large state institutions to community based halfway houses and local hospitals. Eventually most all the state hospitals began closing, including Medfield, which closed completely in 2005.
A number of people who come to NRH on a daily basis were at one time patients at MSH and some have fond memories of living there. In the early 2000s, former patient advocates and NRH began a project to remember those who had lived and died in the hospital.
The cemetery on the MSH grounds has 841 graves containing the remains of those who died while in the care and custody of the hospital. Until the project began, the graves were only identified by numbers. Then a plan was created by the advocate groups and DMH to identify the person’s name associated with each numbered grave. It was a lengthy and difficult project but by 2005, there was a marker with a name, date of birth, and date of death on each of the 841 graves.
Ever since the markers were completed, NRH makes this yearly trip to the cemetery shortly after Memorial Day in order to remember those who died and were buried at MSH. Members spread out and put a flower on each grave. The process takes about an hour as each gravesite is remembered.
At the gate of the cemetery is a stone monument with a brass plaque stating “Remember us for we too have lived and laughed and loved.” As members of NRH, along with our families and supporters, it is so very important to remember those who have gone before us without a voice. Times have changed, but not our numbers, and we need to address the stigma that still exists in our society today. The only way to do so is through education and using our own voices. We cannot be forgotten again.