Rows of shallow depressions, up a grassy slope, too high to be seen from the drive that feeds campus parking lots in South Toledo. Each hollow is three or four feet long by 18 inches wide and nested with brown leaves. Underfoot, the ground is soft. To someone walking a dog through this cedar grove, the patterns would have scant meaning. But once informed by a single scrap of context, the place assumes an eerie, solemn aura.
They are grave dimples that have sunk slowly as the cargo beneath wooden boxes cradling bodies wrapped long ago in cloth shrouds decomposes.
Under one of these narrow cavities rests the bones of poor Margaret Kramer Funk. Her 1897 death notice reads "... the mother of several small children, has gone violently insane. She was taken to the asylum at Toledo, where she died on Saturday." Her descendents in Mansfield wonder about her.
"I feel that no matter how a person dies, what illness or condition they lived with, they were still a person," said Steven Bloir, a hobby genealogist; Margaret was his wifes great-great grandmother.
This land, owned by the University of Toledo and site of its Medical Center (the former Medical College of Ohio), was once home to thousands who lived at the Toledo State Hospital. It was the Toledo Asylum for the Insane when it opened in 1888. Between then and 1973, nearly 2,000 people, unclaimed by families or friends, were laid to rest in two locations, one adjacent to a pig barn.
Their anonymity in death reflects their status in life on societys bottom rung. Interments did not warrant polished granite slabs heralding their dates and earthly contributions ("Beloved Mother, Wife, Daughter, Teacher"). Rather, in institutional style, each grave was assigned a numbered concrete stone pushed in the ground. After all, who would come to meditate? Grave blankets in winter? Memorial Day bouquets? Unlikely.
Indeed, recent efforts to find these index-card-sized concrete nubbins by probing the ground with metal rods have been thwarted because most have sunk below the surface or are altogether gone.
The time is nigh, say a determined group of people, to acknowledge the humanity of these 1,994 women, children, and men.
"We want to restore their dignity. They were the unlucky ones. They were alive when there was no treatment. They were abandoned by their families," said Larry Wanucha.
Hes the spark plug on the Toledo State Hospital Cemetery Reclamation Project that has worked for four years to create a map of burial sites and cemetery boundaries, to locate the mowed-over grave markers, to research stories of the dead, and to build, perhaps in a few years, a fitting memorial.
They are energized by a national movement to reclaim forgotten hospital cemeteries thats emerged over the last 15 years. Most notable is a project at Central State Hospital in Milledgeville, Ga., where 30,000 people are buried. Beginning in 1997, a group to restore dignity at those cemeteries has been so successful, members wrote a manual to help others.
In southeastern Ohio, a project in Athens has resulted in the Ridges Cemeteries Nature Walk, built with public and private dollars. The visitors guide explains that the Athens Lunatic Asylum, opened in 1874, was purchased by Ohio University in 1988. The overgrown cemeteries had long provided grist for OU students titillated by haunted possibilities and even a television show about the worlds scariest places.
In 2000, an Athens committee to improve the sites condition and stop the disrespect set out to restore the cemeteries, rebuild an old pond, and establish a trail focusing on ecological diversity and regeneration.
Saturday in South Toledo, volunteers, including teens participating in Global Youth Service Day, will be at the local cemetery armed with probing rods and shovels, searching for concrete markers, digging them up, and resetting them at the surface.
Simply didnt fit
In the 121 years since Toledos then state-of-the-art asylum opened, treatment for people living with challenging mental and emotional conditions has evolved. So have attitudes, thanks to the tireless efforts of activists who shook the status quo into greater acceptance. Attending to forgotten cemeteries is another step.
"Through them we can evaluate, question, and improve our current methods of treatment, and can look forward to a future when people with mental illness will be consistently treated with the respect and dignity that they have always deserved," notes the projects brochure.
"Were one of the last of the great stigmatizing disorders. ... This is all of us. This is human beings that simply didnt fit," said Marci Dvorak, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Greater Toledo (NAMI), the committees sponsoring organization.
Mr. Wanuchas keen interest has a personal bent.
"We could have been just like them if we were born 100 years ago abandoned in a numbered cemetery plot," he said. The schizophrenia he was diagnosed with 30 years ago at the age of 24 is in remission due to medication and treatment.
Some of those buried here were born with retardation; others were felled by unfortunate circumstances depression, brain injury, addiction, dementia, disease, mental illness, the trauma of war, or postpartum depression. Their families could not or would not care for them, and once here, they often stayed for years. Most were from working or lower-class families.
Children as young as 9 were admitted. A girl who arrived at the age of 13 died here 61 years later. Another 13-year-old, transferred from a childrens home, stayed until succumbing to tuberculosis at 19. A 15-year-old boy who was blind was transferred from the Miami Childrens Home with spinal meningitis. He died two weeks later. Seven babies are buried, stillborn to women who were patients.
Five people were never identified: one, dubbed John Doe #2, lived here for 38 years until his death in 1950. Several sets of family members wives and husbands, parents and children, who lived and died here were buried separately. There are, of course, combat veterans from wars dating, it is thought, to the Civil War.
Another forgotten cemetery, just across Detroit Avenue, was discovered in 1983 during construction of a senior citizens complex. Sunshine Cemetery held the remains of 3,846 of Toledos poorest. All were moved to a mass grave in Forest Cemetery the following year.
The Toledo hospital committee considered disinterring the bodies and re-burying them in one location. But that could cost a small fortune.
One of the two sites, across from Parking Lot 43, is a prime location for university expansion and could end up being in the middle of a larger campus, said Chuck Lehnart, UTs vice president for facilities and construction. A road through that cemetery could be built in the next several years, he said. If so, the graves would be unearthed and relocated, possibly to the cemetery along Arlington Avenue, which is older and is a less buildable location.
On a sweltering July day in 2006, Elizabeth Stone crawled around one of the two cemetery sites (the wrong one, it turned out), urging dirt to yield information about her grandmother.
Using two kinds of bug spray and wearing ankle-cinched pants and a long-sleeved shirt, she pummeled the ground above Swan Creek with a trowel, determined to find the nubbin stamped 967, which corresponded to the hospitals burial log for Matilda Baldwin Stone. When storm clouds blew in three hours later, she left, disappointed.
"This was my greatest hope of having some relationship with my grandmother," said Ms. Stone, of Sylvania. She returned another day with her sister, and they dug until they struck something wooden. Thinking it might be a casket, they quit for the day.
Matilda was her fathers mother. She was admitted to the state hospital with a brain-wasting disease and was 37 when she died here in 1924, leaving two of the six children she bore (four died) to be raised in a Xenia orphanage, said Ms. Stone, a welder at Chryslers LLC Toledo Machining Plant.
"Shes our family. Im asking for empathy," she said. "We would like to give all these people dignity and honor."
Ms. Stone joined the reclamation committee. One night last April, she was certain her grandmothers grave would be found the next day when a group of teenagers would search for the concrete markers as part of Global Youth Service Day. She purchased a thank you card and a gift certificate for the person who would find it.
The day was cold but the teens were eager. And when she heard a commotion, she knew Matildas stone had been uncovered.
"I just looked up to heaven and thanked God."
Shes visited the site several times since then and has written a poem for Matilda. And, she has purchased a cemetery plot in which she would like to have her grandmother interred.
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