Tuesday, April 12, 2011

When the dead gain power

Recently I heard from genealogist/researcher Barry Fleig, who I hadn't talked to in 22 years. Back then he was an indispensable source when I wrote an article about the unanticipated exhumation of people buried in anonymous graves on the former grounds of a Chicago mental health facility in the Dunning neighborhood. (It was a genealogy article, but I was comprehensively ignorant of the subject then.) He had just seen report of a similar situation developing in Lexington, Kentucky, at the Eastern States Hospital. More on that story here. More on the general topic in several February posts at Graveyards of Illinois.

In both cases it's in the interest of powerful individuals, businesses, and bureaucracies to deny the existence of these poorly documented graveyards and the people in them, and to withhold any records that survive. (Some preposterous provisions of HIPAA and even more preposterous misunderstandings of it now make the situation even worse.)

But the people buried in these forgotten places -- usually unsuccessful, unappealing, and unlucky in life -- have a surprising power in death. Living people (the majority without a vested interest) might well have scorned them in life -- but we do not want their remains randomly dug up and tossed about.

One obvious thing that Barry and I both missed at the time is that pretty much every site of an old asylum or mental hospital is also going to be the site of extensive and poorly documented burials from the 1800s and at least the first half of the 1900s.

1 comment:

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