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“We’d rather have names, instead of numbers,” Steinman said. “That’s a decent way of recognizing someone. Replace those numbers. That’s dignity.”
Every few years, O’Falvey goes back to the Minnesota Legislature to ask for more money to pay for more grave markers. Since 1996, no matter which party was in charge, bipartisan majorities of the Legislature have allocated between $125,000 and $300,000 every biennium to continue the work. Lawmakers also issued a formal apology in 2010 for the state’s past treatment of people with mental and developmental disabilities.
In the coming legislative session, Remembering with Dignity will request another $1 million to pay for thousands more headstones. By 2018, they estimate, only a thousand or so of the numbered graves will remain at the old institutional cemeteries.
One of the new granite headstones bears the name of Eugene Gaffke, who came into the world on Christmas Eve 1929 and left it on July 29, 1941.
Eugene was a sweet, smiling child, born with severe developmental disabilities. By the time he was 8, he was almost as tall as his diminutive mother but was unable to talk or walk. His overwhelmed parents, who had five other children at home at the time, allowed the state to step in and take Eugene to Faribault.
Seventy years later, one of his sisters still cried describing the day her big brother was taken to that “terrible place.” The day Eugene died, his mother was in labor with her seventh child.
“I know it would have meant a lot to my grandmother,” Karena Morris, Eugene’s great-grandniece, said of the new headstone. The Gaffke family moved out of Minnesota not long after his death. Surviving siblings were horrified to learn their brother had been buried under a number.
Eugene’s story haunts Morris, whose own daughter has serious disabilities.
‘His life … had meaning’
“When I think about Eugene’s short life, filled with so much suffering, I am even more grateful to be her caregiver. She is a blessing and a joy to me,” Morris wrote in a letter to Remembering With Dignity a few years ago, when she was trying to secure a proper headstone for Eugene’s grave. “She is also right now exactly the same age Eugene was when he died, probably scared, confused, suffering and alone. I want to make sure his grave gets a headstone so that it will be known that he was never forgotten and that his life was important and had meaning.”
Around the state, there are annual ceremonies in the graveyards of the old hospitals. Each one echoes that message: You are not forgotten, your life had value and we are so terribly sorry.
State Rep. Mary Sawatzky, DFL-Willmar, visited the grounds of the old state hospital cemetery in Willmar last month and read the Legislature’s apology aloud. Willmar started out in 1907 as the state’s first substance abuse treatment center and eventually became known as the Asylum for the Insane.
Over the years, more than 700 people died at Willmar and were buried at nearby Oak Knoll cemetery. Their graves were marked with a metal spike and stamped with a number. Now, the spikes have been pulled. Every identifiable grave has a proper granite marker, inscribed with names and dates.
Sawatzky’s apology was part of the annual remembrance ceremony, one of many similar events that take place around the state every year.
“The state apologizes to all persons with mental illness and developmental and other disabilities who have been wrongfully committed to state institutions,” Sawatzky read. “It regrets this history of institutionalization of persons with those disabilities, [and] it commits itself in their memory to move steadfastly to help Minnesotans with those disabilities, who in the future turn to the state for services, receive them in the least restrictive manner.”
An apology, delivered years after the injury, may not seem like much. But to those who survived state institutions, and the families of those who didn’t, it means a great deal. “It makes me feel good inside,” Lubber said. “But there’s still a lot of work to do.”
For more information about Remembering With Dignity, go to www.selfadvocacy.org/programs/rwd. Jennifer Brooks • 651-925-5049