Only the rustling breeze and the chatter of crickets would have been sounds familiar to the 350 people who have slumbered for nearly a century in unmarked graves on the northeast edge of the Pioneers and Soldiers Memorial Cemetery in south Minneapolis.

They could scarcely have imagined the buzzing traffic on nearby Lake Street or the rumbling airplanes that momentarily silenced the visitors who came to honor them for their contributions to medical education.

A black granite tombstone dedicated on Sunday over their graves cites the contributions these dead made to "medical school anatomy teaching" from 1914 to 1916, when about 250 of them were dissected by University of Minnesota medical students .

Though their life stories may be "lost to history," the people buried there "advanced learning about health in Minnesota and the nation," said Barbara Brandt, associate vice president for education at the University of Minnesota, which donated the tombstone.

Buried in the cemetery's potter's field, the 350 include transient workers whose bodies were unclaimed after they died in jail, prison or the city's charity hospitals. A few were suicides, or drunks or accident victims. More than half were foreign born -- immigrants from Sweden, Finland, Poland, Macedonia and other remote lands. About 100 were stillborn babies or infants who died shortly after birth.

"It was very easy to get lost back then, when they didn't have DNA or Social Security numbers or photo IDs everywhere," said Sue Hunter-Weir, a cemetery historian who has tracked down death notices for almost all of the individuals.

The ceremony attracted about 50 neighborhood residents, university officials, genealogy buffs and friends of the 1853 cemetery, which was established before the city of Minneapolis was incorporated. About 21,000 people are interred on the site at Lake Street and Cedar Avenue, which has been full since 1919. The dead include four veterans of the War of 1812 and about two dozen Civil War vets.

"I have great-great-grandparents buried here," said Kathy Spargo of Victoria, who attended with her husband, Ron, and grandchildren Maria, Anna and Mitch Spack of St. Louis Park.

She recently placed a tombstone on the previously unmarked grave of her ancestors. "This cemetery has such a different feel, because so many are buried here without markers," she said. "It is very open and feels more like a park."

Leaning on the new plaque, Mitch Spack, 6, cheerfully announced that he had found the oldest "birthstone thing" in the cemetery, an 1853 headstone that was, well, "it's, like, old," he said.

Authorities gave the bodies to the University of Minnesota pursuant to an 1872 state law that made dissection legal and ordered all unclaimed bodies delivered to medical schools. Infants were immediately buried, but the bodies of the adults were dissected in anatomy classes and then buried. At the time, the university had the state's only medical school, so it was by default the state's morgue for the indigent.

Medical education then was a primitive business compared to today, said Jennifer Gunn, a university medical historian who spoke at the dedication. In response to a 1910 national study of medical education, Minnesota was trying to improve its standards, Gunn said. It opened a new hospital in 1911, increased course requirements and instituted a new anatomy curriculum that required extensive dissecting experience. Until then, medical students might only have studied wax models of limbs and organs, or scrutinized illustrations of body parts, hardly adequate preparation for surgery on a living subject.

For centuries before, "dissection was illegal and despised because the body and soul were inextricably linked" in popular understanding and religious belief, Gunn said.

The university began accepting bodies for anatomical dissection in 1901, but has not been able to trace all of the early remains, said Angela McArthur, director of the U's Anatomy Bequest Program. It has records of all bodies, or "donors" in university parlance, from 1914 to 1916, and after 1920. But the years between 1901 and 1913 and from 1917 to 1919 are undocumented.

The university's memorial program honoring such donors is the largest in the nation, said Brandt.

"We want people to recognize that these individuals, who were quite marginalized in their lives, made important contributions to medical education in this state," she said.

Mary Abbe • 612-673-4431