Names replacing numbers at state hospital cemeteries

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For more than a century the patients who died at Minnesota state hospitals were buried in graves that were unmarked, or were labeled only with a number.

Now the Star Tribune reports an effort to place headstones on the graves of those people has passed the half-way point.

The group heading the effort, Remembering With Dignity, says on its website that it has installed proper markers on more than 7,000 graves but still has more than 5,000 to go. Their campaign is meant to provide some posthumous dignity to those who seemed to have little of it in life.

The Star Tribune story explains that while many of the patients at 11 state hospitals had mental illnesses or physical disabilities, others were institutionalized because of addiction, epilepsy, Down syndrome, or even postpartum depression. An Inver Grove Heights man who spent 15 years in the Faribault hospital beginning at age 10 tells the paper of neglect and abuse.

As the state's approach to mental illness, disability, and substance abuse evolved, most of the hospitals were closed. But the legacy of those campuses lives on in some ways -- most recently in the debate in Fergus Falls about whether to demolish or preserve the architecturally impressive building known as the Kirkbride. Empty since 2006, KARE-11 visited the former asylum this month after it was spared from demolition.

The "guerilla history" website Substreet.org also profiles the history of the Kirkbride at a page replete with historic photos.

In 2010, Gov. Tim Pawlenty signed a resolution apologizing for the way Minnesota treated residents with mental and physical disabilities.

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