A Grave Injustice: former mental patients from the Utah State Hospital lay buried in unmarked plots

Local News

PROVO (ABC4 Utah News) – For decades they’ve been gone and forgotten. Nearly 500 former patients at the Utah State Hospital lay buried in unmarked graves in Provo City Cemetery but now there’s an effort to build a memorial to them.

These 479 individuals all suffered from some sort of mental disorder and died while in the care of the State Hospital They were given pauper’s burials with no funeral and no headstone.

Now decades later the Forgotten Patients Cemetery Project seeks to right this grave injustice and give them the dignity in death that they never received in life.

The faces are haunting. Photographs of patients who endured psychiatric and developmental disorders in a time before mental health issues were understood.

Janina Chilton is the Historian at the Utah State Hospital and runs the museum where the photos are displayed.

“So many sad stories of these people whose lives were totally lost here,” Chilton said. “You can tell just by looking at those photographs how hard it would have been to have been here…Feeling so isolated and so misunderstood and that must have been horrible.”

The facility opened in 1885 as the Utah Territorial Hospital and over the years thousands of patients were warehoused there, living out their days shunned by family and friends and often laid to rest with no funeral.

“Absolutely forgotten,” Chilton said. “They were buried with no ceremony, no one there to say goodbye and all these years later nobody even knows they’re there.”

The Forgotten Patients Project is attempting to raise $120,000 to build a memorial with each of their names on it.

Ginger Phillips, a former patient at the Hospital herself, is on the Forgotten Patients Council.

“I have so much empathy for the people back then and my heart breaks,” Phillips told ABC4 Utah News. “I think we need to take care of our own and they’ve been forgotten. I also think that it puts less stigma on people who have mental illness that they are important people. They are people who need to be remembered and not people who need to be pushed aside and forgotten.”

Through hundreds of hours of research, Chilton found the locations of their graves and knows many of them on a first name basis.

“Here is Helen and here is Joe,” she pointed out on a stroll through Block 5 of the cemetery. “So it makes it kind of interesting when you walk through this area…Mary who came in when she was 25, had two children, died 44 years later, spent the rest of her life here…There’s some days you just want to cry for them. You really do.”

Chilton has located the records of 479 former patients buried between 1886 and 1960. She says at times she’s had assistance from the patients themselves.

“Some of these names I just could not find,” Chilton said. “I mean I’d go through and then five days later I’d be going along and all of the sudden one of them would pop up after I’d already been through that 20 times and I said ‘You know I think some of these people just wanted to be found’ and there was like ‘Look again!’.”

“We just need to realize that these people are important,” Phillips said. “They meant something. We don’t want them to be forgotten anymore and for us as a society to remember those people who are at the State Hospital now and to fight for them. They do not have a voice.”

Chilton says that the Provo Cemetery Memorial would be for the deceased former patients…but also for people suffering now.

“By doing this project we are not only celebrating these people’s lives and letting know that they existed,” she said. “Bbut that people are out there still having a hard time and that we need to acknowledge that…I think being able to help these people find a voice I think that’s the most important and most meaningful to me…It gives back their dignity and their voices. They get to tell people ‘We were here…we were here’.”

Chilton says the goal is to complete the memorial in May of 2018. If you would like to donate to the Forgotten Patients Memorial Project, visit http://www.namiut.org/forgotten-patient-project-donation

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