By Brian Ojanpa
Free Press Staff Writer
ST PETER —
An annual memorial service at a St. Peter cemetery Thursday will honor scores of once-anonymous mentally ill hospital patients who repose there.
The 1 p.m. service at Resurrection Cemetery will honor St. Peter Regional Treatment Center patients who historically were buried under markers bearing only numbers.
Rick Cardenas, co-director of Twin Cities-based Advocating Change Together and a leader in the agency’s statewide effort to identify deceased state hospital patients, said numbers-only grave markings were done in deference to patients’ families.
“There was a stigma attached to people with mental disabilities.”
In 2003, the agency member organization Remembering With Dignity began its quest to identify the thousands of nameless souls buried in state hospital and city cemeteries statewide.
Cardenas said it’s been a daunting process because of the sheer numbers of deceased and because death records are often vague or, because many were penned by hand, sometimes illegible.
“We discovered it’s not only a state of 10,000 lakes but also of 10,000 unmarked graves.”
Actually, he said researchers discovered it’s more like 13,000 unmarked graves, and through their diligence most grave sites now bear names, birth dates and death dates.
He said except for some small out-of-the-way “side” cemeteries in St. Peter, all formerly numbered patient graves now have name plaques. About 2,000 St. Peter graves have been identified.
The 147-year-old hospital in St. Peter is the oldest of Minnesota’s 10 treatment center institutions.