The Quest to Honor Disabled Patients Buried in Anonymous Graves

This is a post from Atlas Obscura which discusses the burial places of large institutions in the US which were left behind when they closed. Patients records may have been lost and when they are buried anonymously how do their families know where they are? When I visited Netherne Hospital cemetery and also St Lawrence’s burial ground, there were very few markers but in recent years relatives have been reclaiming their loved ones. I thought this was an interesting post in light of disability rights campaigns. It also reminds us that these people are not fogotten.

Historically, institutions often interred their dead with simple markers. In Massachusetts, researchers are learning about the patients’ lives and the facilities’ fraught legacies.

BY ASIA LONDON PALOMBAJULY 1, 2021The Quest to Honor Disabled Patients Buried in Anonymous GravesThis marker in the MetFern Cemetery denotes the burial of Robert Comeau (1943-1959).This marker in the MetFern Cemetery denotes the burial of Robert Comeau (1943-1959). ASIA LONDON PALOMBAIn This StoryDESTINATION GUIDEWaltham

IT’S QUIET. The afternoon sky is draped in a blanket of clouds and a breeze weaves its way through the trees. Down a winding dirt path in the woods of WalthamMassachusetts, is a clearing peppered with hundreds of small, gray slabs of concrete. They sink into the earth as if pulled down by invisible hands.

These uneven stumbling stones serve as crass grave markers for the hundreds of people who died in two nearby institutions for people with disabilities. The cemetery is shared by the Metropolitan State Hospital, a former psychiatric hospital, and the Walter E. Fernald Developmental Center, the oldest state-run institution of its kind in the United States.

Between 1947 and 1979, these institutions buried 296 of their patients in simple, anonymous graves on a plot of former marshland now called the MetFern Cemetery, a portmanteau of the two institutions’ names. The grave markers are sunken and toppled, and have only two things etched onto their concrete slabs: “C” or “P,” for Catholic and Protestant (though records indicate that a Muslim man and two Jewish patients may have been buried there as well), and a number that denotes the order in which the patient was interred.

One of the buildings on the Walter E. Fernald Developmental Center campus, pictured in February 2020.
One of the buildings on the Walter E. Fernald Developmental Center campus, pictured in February 2020. ASIA LONDON PALOMBA

For the past seven years, Alex Green, a local disability historian, has worked to identify and research the lives of those buried at MetFern. By combing through birth and death certificates, he has come to know their names and stories. Today, most of Green’s advocacy focuses on working alongside the state to make the cemetery more dignified.RELATEDWhen Chinese Americans Were Blamed for 19th-Century Epidemics, They Built Their Own HospitalThe Chinese Hospital in San Francisco is still one-of-a-kind.Read more

The burial ground is a powerful symbol for the people who grappled with the institutions’ legacies. “It kind of provides a safe, central place where everyone agrees to come back together around it,” says Green, an adjunct lecturer in public policy at Harvard University. “People are sharing stories more for the first time.”

THE WALTER E. FERNALD DEVELOPMENTAL Center, also referred to as the Fernald School, was originally called the Massachusetts School for Idiotic and Feeble-Minded Youth. Founded in South Boston in 1848 by Samuel Gridley Howe, it opened as a small experimental school to teach children and teens with intellectual disabilities life skills so they could live independently. Due to the popular perception that children with disabilities couldn’t learn, it proved to be the most progressive and radical institution of its era, says Green.

By 1888, the institution had moved to a sprawling, 196-acre campus in Waltham under the direction of superintendent Walter E. Fernald, where it quickly became the model for other institutions in the state and country. By the late 19th century, Fernald had become a custodial facility where those with disabilities might be locked away for life.

The national peak of institutionalization for those with intellectual and developmental disabilities in the U.S. was in 1967, when nearly 200,000 people were incarcerated in more than 350 large, state-run institutions. An additional 30,000 people were living in state psychiatric facilities, according to the National Council on Disability, an advisory agency on disability policy.

Protestant grave markers in the MetFern Cemetery, photographed in June 2021.
Protestant grave markers in the MetFern Cemetery, photographed in June 2021. ASIA LONDON PALOMBA

The Metropolitan State Hospital, also known as MetState, opened in 1930 and was the state’s last large-scale institution. Between 1924 and 1947, patients were buried in Waltham’s Mt. Feake Cemetery or were sent back to their original towns—though some are unaccounted for, and Green suspects there were additional burials around the institutions’ grounds. By 1947, both the Fernald School and MetState had fallen apart, and would eventually shutter (MetState in 1992, and Fernald in 2014). The onset of major crises such as the Great Depression and both World Wars caused the institutions to become severely underfunded and short-staffed. As conditions declined, an increasing number of patients suffered premature deaths, leading the institutions to open a shared cemetery, says Green.

Patients were buried in institutional cemeteries for a number of reasons. Some had no living family or couldn’t afford a proper burial. Institutions usually did a haphazard job of contacting family members about deaths, and in many cases families didn’t make an effort to collect their relative’s body. The unnamed gravestones were likely a measure taken to protect a family’s reputation in an era of overwhelming social stigma surrounding disabilities.

This was the case at similar institutions all over the state and country, and in the past few years, grassroots movements have been gaining traction from Utah to Minnesota to Georgia, aiming to bring recognition and justice to those buried under unnamed graves. These movements emphasize marking and preserving the final resting grounds of institutional patients.

“To ask for this history is not enough.”

Adam Rosenblatt, a professor at Duke University, has been studying this phenomenon for a book he’s writing—titled Cemetery Citizens and slated for publication in 2022—on people who care for places of the marginalized dead. One of his chapters focuses specifically on MetFern.

“The movement to try to commemorate mental hospital cemeteries is something that’s been around since the 1990s and seems to be slowly but gradually spreading,” he says. “There is a desire to contextualize and commemorate….even by just filling in the gaps on sites like with pictures of each grave.” Rosenblatt says there’s now “a lot of energy” around unearthing information and restoring dignity to deceased people who have long been overlooked.

SOME OF GREEN’S ACTIVISM INVOLVES working alongside students—especially 11th graders he once taught part-time at Gann Academy, an independent Jewish high school tucked between Fernald and MetFern. In 2017, Green, Yoni Kadden, and Kevin Levin—two history teachers at Gann—created a disability history curriculum focused on MetFern, Fernald, and MetState. Over the years, students have parceled through census data to research the individual lives of those buried at MetFern. In 2020, the students created a memorial book and an official website, coded by a 2020 Gann graduate, to house the names and biographies of each person buried in the cemetery. The website led to some relatives finally learning where their loved ones are buried after decades of speculation. In this way, these institutional cemeteries are “two-way streets to the past and into the present,” Green says. “They help [us] process the trauma and grief around them.”

When students learned about the burial ground’s legacy they “were horrified. They wanted to know more,” says Kadden. “A lot of them tied this to our responsibility to talk about other injustices.” Kadden will be leading another disability history class at Gann in the fall of 2021.

Alex Green and students.
Alex Green and students. COURTESY ALEX GREEN

The work surrounding MetFern echoes elements of the deinstitutionalization movement that gained steam in the early 1970s. The movement was spearheaded by a large number of parent advocacy groups who witnessed the squalid living conditions in these facilities and demanded court-mandated safeguards for those living in institutions. This work coincided with a rise in self advocacy, where people with disabilities agitated for their own rights, and was compounded by support from institutional staff members who witnessed the human rights abuses in these facilities up close. This advocacy reverberates into the present as activists continue to fight for this dark and overlooked part of American history.

“There is an enormous growing coalition of disability rights people who see this is a galvanizing example of why denying us the access to our history is in of itself a form of cruelty,” says Green, who has a history of mental illness which has closely tied him to his work and helped inform the way he processes what he learns. “I see another history where I’m just another person in that graveyard. There is a personal level.”

MASSACHUSETTS’S DEPARTMENT OF CONSERVATION AND Recreation (DCR) manages MetFern, and its groundskeepers trim the grass regularly and erected the cemetery’s first two signs in the early 2000s. These explain what the markings on the gravestones mean, and list the years the cemetery was operational. A makeshift shrine has been erected at MetFern’s center where family members and passersby leave statues, coins, and notes to the deceased.

In the summer of 2019, George Darcy, a Waltham City Councilor, applied for a $80,000 city preservation grant to restore MetFern. Over the coming year, the goal is to transfer those funds to the DCR through a matching grant program; if approved, the DCR will use the $160,000 to restore the cemetery with community input. Darcy’s grant aims to regrade the land, reset the headstones, and place signage at the cemetery’s entrances. Based on designs by Gann students, the signs will offer a brief history on the institutions, list patients’ names, and provide instructions on how to identify each person.

The DCR plans on keeping the gravestones as they are instead of installing new ones with names, as was done at other institutional cemeteries across the state. Being able to see these unmarked stones is fundamental to understanding how these institutions fit into the larger fabric of American society, explains Green.

The Metropolitan State Hospital's administration building, pictured here in October 2019, is the facility's last building standing. The rest were torn down in the 1990s to make way for luxury condos.
The Metropolitan State Hospital’s administration building, pictured here in October 2019, is the facility’s last building standing. The rest were torn down in the 1990s to make way for luxury condos. ASIA LONDON PALOMBA

In February 2021, a bill was introduced into the Massachusetts State House to study the history of institutions for people with disabilities in the state. Co-authored by Green alongside Representative Sean Garballey and Senator Michael Barrett, the bill proposes a disabled-persons-led commission tasked with locating records and graves and issuing a formal report. Green hopes this bill will help reconcile the different approaches taken at various cemeteries across the state to find the best way forward for MetFern.

While MetFern is just one of many institutional cemeteries across the country, it is emblematic of an era and an attitude that continue to exert influence. For Green and other activists, these defunct institutions and their cemeteries are not merely relics of a bygone era, but reminders that the past is never truly far behind us.

“To ask for this history is not enough, ” says Green. “To fight for this history as our history, as disabled people, is to fight for respect for [our] fundamental rights.”

©Asia London Palambo/Atlas Obscura


The mystery of two wonderful examples of medieval memento mori

I found the article below in the Church Times and thought that I would share it with you.  Although on first glance they may look a little macabre, I saw them as lovely examples of medieval iconogrpahy.  In many ways they are also very touching.  I love the mystery surrounding them as well.

Shrouded skeletons on brasses in medieval Durham church investigated

02 MARCH 2018



The two shrouded figures displayed on brasses at St Edmund’s, Sedgefield

PUBLIC curiosity about two shrouded skeletons in a medieval church has led to an investigation into their origins.

The figures — believed to be male and female — are depicted on brasses displayed on the wall at 13th-century St Edmund’s, Sedgefield, in Co. Durham, which is Grade I listed. The plates are singular in that they portray skeletons: normally, the figure is a likeness of the person in the tomb.

Little is known about them, and the Friends of St Edmund’s are trying to find out more. “We are asked about the origin of the skeletons on a fairly regular basis, and it would be nice to have an explanation for people who visit the church,” Alison Hodgson, a local historian and the secretary of the group, said.

They hope that documents held in the archives of the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle upon Tyne will shed some light, and are aware of one record which says that the two figures were once on a tomb that had a shield and ribbon above, and a border — probably with an inscription — around the edge.

Brian Mutch, a churchwarden and the Friends’ membership secretary, is leading the investigation. “We don’t know how long they have been in the church,” he said. “One document from 1896 says they were there then; so we will have to go further back. There is no indication as to how old they are, but all the others in the church date from the 1300s; so it is quite likely they come from then.

“It is possible they were on a tomb in the north transept, but that has been altered two or three times over the years. However, we do have two stone effigies in the south transept — one of a man and the other of a woman — and I wonder if it is them. There are records of noble families in the area giving patronage to the church, but we have yet to examine them.

“There is a lot more work to do. I don’t know how long it will take, but we shall persevere.”

A mother and daughter’s last good-bye?

Welcome to 2019! and we begin with an unusual variation on a common funerary symbol which I recently discovered in Brompton Cemetery


The shaking hands symbol on the Chesterton memorial in Brompton Cemetery. Note the male/female cuffs.
©Carole Tyrrell

One of the most common symbols in a large Victorian cemetery is that of the shaking or clasped  hands.

Usually, most of the hands illustrate the right hand in a grasp with fingers overlapping the other hand while the left hand is open. This is often interpreted as a man holding a woman’s hand which could indicate marriage or a close bond between two individuals. Clasped hands are also symbolic of a farewell or last good-bye. If you look at the cuffs of each hand you can soon guess who is the man and who is the woman as the latter usually has a frilly cuff.

There are also several other explanations of this image: the clasped hands may mean ‘Farewell’, marriage, or the that first one to die holds the surviving spouse’s hand guiding them to heaven. If on a family tomb they can mean either hope or reunification in the next life or simply ‘see you soon’ which may not be as comforting as it sounds with the Victorians high mortality rate.

But, while pottering about in Brompton Cemetery over Christmas and New Year, I found this variation on the theme.  It’s undoubtedly two women shaking hands in farewell as each has a frilly cuff and is remarkably well carved.

The cross and hands in full.
©Carole Tyrrell

At the base of the cross there is an inscription saying ‘In Loving Memory of our Beloved Mother.’  Beneath that at the very base of the monument there is a date, a name and the age at death.

It was such a cold day that I didn’t loiter too long except to take photos but I am intrigued enough to plan to do further research.  Brompton Cemetery’s burial records have been digitised which is very helpful and once I have the name and date of death I should know more.

Watch this space….

© Text and photos Carole Tyrrell


The mysterious mourner of West Norwood Cemetery


Spring time view of the Howard monument 21 April 2018 – note daffodils on ledge.
©Carole Tyrrell

Where do you go to grieve when there’s no memorial with which to remember them?

I can’t recall exactly when I first spotted the floral tribute in a jam jar placed on a ledge of the Howard monument in West Norwood Cemetery.  The memorial is near the columbarium and over the last 2 or 3 years I began to make a habit of looking to see what flowers would be in the jam jar this time.  There were never any accompanying cards or identification, just the flowers and sometimes a tea light. They were always fresh.

The bright colours of the flowers always stood out against the pale plaster on the monument behind them and often provided a wonderful photo opportunity.

The Howard monument is a handsome and large one with two magnificent downturned torches on each of its four sides and a fulsome epitaph above the flowers.


But who put them there? A mysterious mourner like the black clad visitor to Edgar Allan Poe’s grave? A descendant of the family marking a special day?

It was at the West Norwood Open Day in July 2018 I finally met the mystery mourner.  As I walked past on my way to the columbarium, she was arranging a new bunch of flowers in their jam jar and we got chatting.

She was a local woman, let’s call her Mary, and was nothing to do with the Howards at all. Instead her flowers and tea lights commemorated a loved one who’d been cremated a long way away.  We talked about where do you go to grieve if you have no permanent memorial or your deceased loved one is too faraway to visit.

She mentioned the mourning process and said that she used to come everyday but now it was less often. ‘It doesn’t mean that you don’t think about them but it’s not quite so raw. You start to move on.’ she said and added ‘You can get caught up in it.’  I mentioned Queen Victoria’s extended mourning period after Prince Albert died. At some point, at which only the mourning would know, they will become a cherished memory  and the outward mourning begins to fade. I didn’t ask her why she’d chosen that particular monument but maybe she had her own reasons.

When my father unexpectedly died, it had been difficult for me to grieve as I had nowhere tangible to go and so, like Mary, I did adopt an angel in a nearby Victorian cemetery as my mourning place.  There was something about being in a place where the outpouring of grief was unashamed and open with the need to have a permanent memorial that said I was here.  It felt more appropriate that the neatly trimmed municipal cemeteries. I felt drawn to it although he’d never been there.

But the old cliché is true in that time is a great healer, life does go on and the dead live in our hearts in the ways in which we choose to remember them.  With me I became a blood donor in my father’s memory as he had also been one.

One day Mary may no longer feel the need to leave a floral tribute to her departed friend and it will have served its purpose. I will miss passing the Howard monument to see what flowers are in the jamjar this time.

RIP Mary’s friend whoever and wherever you were.  I hope you know that Mary always remembered you and that you were not forgotten.

Fresh flowers at the Howard monument. July 2018
©Carole Tyrrell

©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell

The Unknown Mourner of West Norwood – update on blog published on 31/10/15


Before and after cleaning


I recently visited West Norwood Cemetery to see their celebrated catacombs.  They are well worth seeing if you have the chance but please note that you must be a member of the Friends of West Norwood Cemetery to be able to visit them.  This is for Health and Safety and insurance reasons. While I was waiting for the rest of the participants to arrive I looked around for the recumbent statue of the Unknown Mourner.

This is a large statue of a naked, prostate mourning woman which was, when I first saw her, was under some bushes on the forecourt in front of the main entrance gates.   Then she moved inside the gates and I next saw her lying on some waste ground during renovations.  No-one knows, or is probably ever likely to know, to which grave she belongs.  The Unknown Mourner is undoubtedly a victim of Lambeth Council’s notorious clearances of West Norwood during the 1960’s.  They just bulldozed anything , including listed memorials and  monuments, without any recordkeeping  until they were stopped by an ecclesiastical court.

But this time the Mourner was a gleaming pristine white which has revealed details of the sculpture that I’d never noticed before. I had always assumed that she was meant to be the uniform dull grey as that was the colour of the stone but what a difference a good clean has made.  However,  it’s unfortunate that  discoloured water has gathered by her feet which make it look as if she’s stepped in something nasty.  But  it’s such a pleasure to see her looking so good and basking in the sunshine in the middle of rose bushes.   Wherever her owner is within the cemetery I’m sure they would be pleased.

©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell – no reproduction without permission

The unknown mourner of West Norwood Cemetery

From West Norwood cemetery copyright Carole Tyrrell
From West Norwood cemetery
copyright Carole Tyrrell

This is the voluptuous, but homeless, mourning woman of West Norwood cemetery. I first noticed her on a visit in 2013 when I found her under bushes in the front courtyard of the cemetery. I was immediately intrigued. After all, It’s not every day that you find a naked woman on her own with no identification. I emailed Colin Fenn of the Friends of West Norwood Cemetery and he was kind enough to reply that no-one knew which grave or memorial she had originally belonged to.

This was because. in 1965. Lambeth Council made a compulsory purchase of the cemetery. Like the others in London’s Magnificent Seven cemeteries, the cemetery company that owned had gone bankrupt and left it to deteriorate. Lambeth then claimed ownership over the existing graves after extinguishing past rights. But even worse, they then embarked on a ‘lawn conversion’ which was a euphemistic term for a drastic and catastrophic clearance of the cemetery. As we know, some councils are very keen to make it easy for their parks and gardens department to mow round tombstones etc cemeteries and so they embarked on a free-for-all. Memorials, monuments, statues, – all were cleared away and smashed beyond repair. From old postcards it can be seen that the cemetery was heavily populated with weeping angels, crosses, mausolea, etc and it has been estimated that up to 10,000 monuments including some of the listed ones. The cemetery had been closed to new burials as it was full but Lambeth didn’t let this deter them and so they restarted new burials by reselling existing plots for re-use. As a result, the new burials were stopped and a handful of the damaged or memorials had to be restored. Lambeth were also required to publish an index of cleared and resold plots so the descendants of historic owners can identify and request restitution of their family’s plot.

But this poor lady has lost her place in the cemetery. She obviously had a place on which to grieve somewhere on the cemetery once but not now. She has a slightly Art Nouveau look about her so she may date from the turn of the century, perhaps around 1900. We are lucky that she hasn’t been stolen altogether as in other cemeteries.

Since then she has moved again, further inside the cemetery near the entrance which is where this photograph was taken.

And so she is condemned to grieve and mourn, now an anonymous memorial, a eternal symbol of sadness.

Acknowledgement: Wikipedia and Colin Fenn.

Text and photo copyright Carole Tyrrell


I was going through my memory cards recently and found some more photos of this lonely lady when she had been placed on the lawn at the front entrance of West Norwood cemetery.