Hundreds of mentally ill patients from the former Delaware State Hospital were buried in unnamed graves. An effort to better honor their memories is now underway.
Hidden away and long forgotten deep inside the Delaware Health and Social Services campus near New Castle is a spiral cemetery filled with grave stones. The graves are marked with numbers. No names. Just a circle of numbered stones.
From 1891 to 1983, this was the final resting place for more than 700 former patients and a few workers at the Delaware State Hospital. The hospital served patients with mental illness as well as those with developmental disabilities and other ailments.
“The people who are buried here were formerly patients of the hospital, who when they died either had no family or their family had no means to bury them,” said Faith Kuehn of the Delaware Department of Agriculture.
Making it visible
Kuehn spearheaded the effort to clean up the cemetery and make it more accessible. That meant ripping out the huge hedgerows hiding the cemetery from view. “What you see today is a tremendous improvement over what it was in 2010.”
“It’s come a long way,” said John McDermott, who has worked for more than 30 years in facilities operations at the DHSS campus. “Back when I first started here we had a hedgerow, poison ivy all growing up along the area here, and it was not even noticeable from the street.”
Now that the hedgerow and poison ivy are gone, the cemetery is visible, and there are more visitors.
“We have people that come here and visit, we also have people from the campus who like to walk and they’ll come up here now because they see it,” McDermott said. But even seeing it doesn’t provide any information about the life buried below. Not even a name.
What’s in a name
The names of the deceased were recorded in a cemetery book along with the corresponding numbered gravestone. But that cemetery book now resides in the Delaware State Archives building in Dover, about 50 miles away.
“Everything is in a name. That’s the beginning of my identity,” said Bryce Hewlett who heads up the Delaware Consumer Recovery Coalition. “I’m not just some person who has a mental health diagnosis. I am Bryce, this is me.” The DCRC is a group dedicated to improving community inclusion for those recovering from mental illness.
“Just being able to put the names of the people who have passed away and are now buried in a place that’s recognizable, is very significant to bring dignity to the people buried here,” Hewlett said.
Forty-two million Americans suffer from a mental illness according to a 2014 study by the US Substance and Mental Health Administration. And while some progress has been made in how those with mental health problems are treated, there is still a stigma.
“It saddens me sometimes that the only time mental health gets attention in the news is when there’s some kind of major tragedy,” Hewlett said. “But statistics show that people with mental health diagnoses are far less likely to be the perpetrator of violence than they are to be victims of violence.”
Next year, a monument listing all the names of those buried will be placed on the edge of the cemetery. That monument will be sculpted in part by those recovering from mental illness.
“It will be a well-built structure by the folks at the Creative Vision Factory who have a lot of experience in creating monuments like this,” Hewlett said. “This will be something that many of us in our community can point to and say: you’re not forgotten.”
In addition to the monument, there are also plans for a historical marker at the site. “There are two civil war veterans buried here, one was a patient of the hospital, one was an employee, there’s also a veteran of the Spanish American war buried here,” Kuehn said.
The monument is scheduled to be unveiled next spring. Donations to help fund the monument are being accepted at DelawareRecovery.org.