In graveyards of state hospitals, names replace numbers

  • Article by: JENNIFER BROOKS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 20, 2013 - 9:57 AM

13,000 died at state hospitals and were buried with a number. Now, the graves are getting names.

The state of Minnesota promised to take care of a little boy named Eugene.

It let him down. First in life, and then again in death.

Eugene Joseph Gaffke died of heat prostration on a hot summer day in 1941, three-and-a-half years after he was taken from his family and incarcerated at what was then known as the State School for the Feeble-Minded in Faribault.

The only memorial to Eugene’s short life was a concrete plug in a Faribault cemetery, stamped with his number — 551. On his death certificate, the child’s occupation is listed as “inmate.”

Now Minnesota is doing what it can to make amends.

Between 1866 and 1997, more than 13,000 Minnesotans died in the state’s 11 mental hospitals and were buried in graves marked only with a number — if they were marked at all. As the institutions closed, the cemeteries with their sad rows of numbered graves remained in Faribault, Hastings, Rochester, St. Peter, Moose Lake, Willmar, Brainerd, Sauk Centre, Fergus Falls, Cambridge and Ah-Gwah-Ching.

“It wasn’t right. They should have been remembering us as people, not by the numbers,” said Larry Lubbers of Inver Grove Heights, who lived at Faribault from the time he was 10 until age 25.

Lubbers’ years at Faribault were deeply unhappy, filled with abuse and neglect. He was not allowed to go to school. On some days, his arms would be held down and he would not be allowed to feed himself.

“I didn’t get treated nice,” he said. “It was not a very good place.”

Not once does Lubbers remember anyone explaining why a 10-year-old had to be locked away.

Names behind the numbers

People could be institutionalized for almost any reason. Some struggled with mental illness, or a physical disability or substance abuse. Some had epilepsy, or were children with Down syndrome, or women suffering from postpartum depression. Orphaned children or pregnant mothers could be dropped off and remain there for the rest of their lives.

Today Lubbers works with the nonprofit group Remembering With Dignity, which is halfway through the long process of replacing all those numbered graves with proper headstones.

To date, Remembering With Dignity has placed 7,139 new headstones and is in the process of installing 750 more at old institutional cemeteries in Rochester, Faribault and Fergus Falls. Another 5,111 graves have yet to be restored.

Finding a name for those graves, and learning the stories behind those names, is Halle O’Falvey, who runs the Remembering with Dignity program.

Taped to her computer is a photo of Mary Grabarkewitz Kovar, who died at the Rochester State Hospital in 1896 — not long after her ex-husband had her declared insane and committed so he could take 180 acres of farmland she had inherited. The first time O’Falvey saw the photo, and heard the story, she cried. In her files is a letter from Kovar’s great-granddaughter, who calls her “the angel who found Mary’s grave.” Great-grandma Kovar is now buried under her own name.

“It’s really sad, sad stuff,” said O’Falvey, who is researching the histories of two sisters who lived and died together in a state institution. She has found many similar cases of siblings institutionalized because their parents died or fell into poverty or could not control their children’s behavior. “They were failed by society,” O’Falvey said.

She leavens the sorrowful nature of her research by working closely with volunteers like Lubbers and Manny Steinman of Minneapolis. Steinman was institutionalized at Faribault from the time he was 2 until age 10.

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