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May 12, 2017

UMMC discovered up to 7,000 bodies buried on-site. Here's their plan to honor the deceased.

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Up to 7,000 patients treated at what was once called the Mississippi State Lunatic Asylum are buried in undeveloped land at the University of Mississippi Medical Center. Now, officials are proposing an innovative plan to both honor patients' memories and provide researchers insight into how mental health patients were treated more than a century ago.

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According to Molly Zuckerman, an associate professor at Mississippi State University, the Mississippi State Lunatic Asylum housed about 35,000 patients between its opening in 1855 and its closure in 1935. 

The institution was opened largely due to the efforts of Dorothea Dix, the Washington Post's "Retropolis" reports, a social reformer who was concerned that many people with mental illnesses were kept in jails and prisons rather than health care facilities. But some patients were put in the asylum against their will, while others were placed there because their families were unable to care for them at home.

If no one claimed a patient who passed away while at the facility, the institution buried the individual on the property, "Retropolis" reports. Overall, Zuckerman says, about 9,000 people passed away at the institution.  

Discovering a cemetery

According to a UMMC press release, "administrators have known about the presence of bodies—but not in such large numbers—since before the Medical Center opened in 1955."  

Then, in 2012, construction workers discovered 66 coffins while building a new road on the campus.

The remains held within were exhumed and stored in acid-free containers at MSU's archaeology center, roughly two hours north of the cemetery.

Between 2013 and 2015, officials assessed the land with surveys and radar detection, and they now estimate that between 5,000 and 7,000 more coffins are buried across 20 acres of UMMC's campus.

According to the UMMC release, "The graves are located in an undeveloped portion of campus where no immediate construction is planned."

A new proposal

One option under consideration is to exhume and rebury the remains elsewhere, which could cost more than $20 million.

But officials are exploring an alternative: creating an on-site memorial and a new lab to study the remains, hoping to learn more about how people with mental illness were treated at the time.

"We will exhume as many as we can," explains Ralph Didlake, director of UMMC's Center for Bioethics and Medical Humanities, "and we will archive or curate the remains as scientific specimens, and then our plan is to place them in a functional memorial structure."

Exhumations, according to Didlake, would be performed "through standard archaeological practices through which this is done all over the world."

Members of the public would be able to visit the memorial to learn more about the asylum's history and see whether their relatives were treated or buried at the institution.

While the overall cost of the proposal can't yet be assessed, since the visitor's center and memorial site have not yet been designed, it would be less costly than reburial, according to Didlake. He said the cost to exhume and catalogue remains would be about $400,000 annually over the course of eight years—or about $4 million overall.

A 'unique resource' for the state

Didlake believes the lab would be the first of its kind in the country. He said, "This is an opportunity for us to deconstruct that stigma" that historically has surrounded mental illness. "How do we look at this through a modern lens and how does all this inform how we take care of mental health issues going forward?"

Separately, Zuckerman, who is part of a consortium working on the proposal, said, "It would make Mississippi a national center on historical records relating to health in the pre-modern period, particularly those being institutionalized."

She added, "Lots of other insane asylums' cemeteries have been found and re-buried … but nothing is gained by that act. We don't get any scientific information" (Shapira, "Retropolis," Washington Post, 5/9; Mitchell, Clarion-Ledger, 5/10; Rege, Becker's Hospital Review, 5/8; Chriss, CNN, 5/9; UMMC press release, 5/9).

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