The narrow concrete headstones marking the graves of former Connecticut Valley Hospital patients contain no names, no dates of birth or death and no comforting epitaphs such as "gone but not forgotten."
Ceremony honors former patients buried in numbered graves
They just have numbers, each one hiding the identity of the person buried beneath.
During a time when mental illness was considered shameful, 1,686 people were anonymously interred on the grounds of the state hospital in Middletown for mental health and addiction services. For the 12th year in a row last Wednesday, 100 of those people were named, along with their date of death and the age at which they died.
"Their lives, like all lives, were beautiful and miraculous," said the Rev. John C. Hall, pastor of First Church of Christ Congregational, who led the ceremony.
The first name read Wednesday was that of the man buried in grave number 1,100: Maurice Scanlon, who died Feb. 20, 1931, at the age of 70. The last man honored was Cornelius Brennan, buried in grave 1,199, who died Jan. 15, 1935, at the age of 63.
The ceremony will continue until 2015, with 100 names read a year, until all have been said aloud.
"Just to bring these people back to identity is really what it's about," said Hall, who helped to start the observance.
About 50 people participated in the ceremony, including current CVH patients and staff.
Some of the names of those buried were discovered in a book at Russell Library that catalogued their identities as part of a Depression-era Works Progress Administration project. A legal opinion from the state attorney general's office allowed the hospital to release the rest of the names, and they are listed on a marker at the cemetery along with their corresponding grave number.
A cemetery committee decided not to replace the headstones with ones listing names, although about 100 headstones that are crumbling or unreadable are replaced annually with new ones.
Deceased patients were buried on CVH grounds between 1878 and 1955. CVH CEO Helene Vartelas, who also participated in the ceremony, said that, at that time, the patients were listed by number for confidentiality reasons. Although some families of patients buried their kin, she said, some patients were "without families and some without means."
She said that, starting in the 1950s, there was more of a push for families to bury deceased relatives or bury the patient in their town of origin, and now there is a national movement for hospitals such as CVH to put names on graves of their deceased former patients.
"We still have a ways to go, but we're making many strides," Vartelas said about erasing the stigma of mental illness.
Among those buried in the CVH cemetery is Elizabeth Langzettel, the great-grandmother of Anne Goodenough of Los Angeles. When she was tracing her genealogy, Goodenough found that her relative, who died in 1942, was buried there and not with her husband.
Her great-grandmother's name is written on her husband's headstone at a local Catholic cemetery, but no date of death is listed, Goodenough said, and the church overseeing the cemetery didn't have a record of her burial there.
Goodenough, who grew up in Winsted and remembers kids from her childhood making jokes about the state mental hospital, knows her great-grandmother spent a decade at CVH but doesn't know why, since hospital records have since been destroyed.
"It's strange in our society that people were put here with numbers and it wasn't given a second thought," she said.
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