Mt. Hope Cemetery memorial unveiling highlights mental health injustices past and present
A memorial was unveiled at Mount Hope Cemetery Monday to honor the lives of hundreds of people who were buried in unmarked graves – residents of a 19th century almshouse, so-called “insane” asylum, and penitentiary.
“People commonly died in these institutions and sometimes when they died they were claimed by family or friends who then arranged for private burial,” said Ryan Thibodeau. “But oftentimes, that did not happen.”
Thibodeau is part of a committee that put together the memorial: a few benches, some trees, and plaques.
One of the people who rests here was a Civil War veteran, Thibodeau said. The man, William Rubie, was admitted to the asylum in the late 1860s after he’d served with the Union Army in the war. He’d died in the asylum 12 years later. His daughter was admitted soon after and later died there as well. She was 26 years old.
“This memorial that we've put together here ... is for William, and it's for Lottie,. and it's for the hundreds upon hundreds of other people who are buried out there in unmarked graves, who I think have been invisible to us for far too long,” he said.
Thibodeau’s 10-year-old daughter Zoey helped install the benches of the memorial. She handed out brochures at the event and says she’s proud to be part of the project.
“I think that like even if they have mental illness, they still deserve to get recognized and they're still people and they deserve to be remembered,” she said.
The memorial is one of two that commemorates those buried in unmarked mass graves from 19th century institutions. The other, a Remembrance Garden, is in Highland Park.
Deinstitutionalization happened around the 1980s, but there was not enough funding for community resources in place to help people who had been institutionalized adjust to living in the community.
Rochester Mayor Malik Evans said that history is still with us.
“We are so far behind as it relates to helping people who struggle with mental health issues,” Evans said. “As a country, we are we are failing in that regard. I see it every day. ... And if we don't pay attention to it, we're really going to regret it in the years forward.”
Evans said there needs to be federal and state funding for more community resources like supportive housing and psychiatric in-patient care to meet the need in Rochester and across the state.
“It just can't be left at a local level, because the local level doesn't have the resources for that, particularly when you're dealing with … five of the poorest zip codes in New York State,” he said. “You can't do it alone with those resources. So the federal and state government have to step up.”