Eastern State Hospital and Kentucky State Archives blocking access to death and burial records for ESH cemetery
By Bruce Burris
Founder, Eastern State Hospital Cemetery Preservation Project
Eight summers ago, directly behind the Hope Center, on Eastern State Hospital (ESH) property, I blundered onto a small wildly overgrown space surrounded by a broken chain link fence. I knew it to be a cemetery only because a man mowing grass on a property nearby allowed that it was when I asked. He also mentioned that he thought there were over 2,000 people buried there, a number that was beyond my ability to really grasp. Somewhat ironically, I was only there in the first place because I was searching for an appropriate space to start a community garden.
Since that day, it has been established that this tiny spot, not much larger than a typical middle class backyard, contains the remains of between 4,000 and 7,000 people — mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, politicians, shopkeepers, farmers … humans. Further, these numbers do not include the remains of the many thousands more we believe to be scattered throughout the original ESH property.
A Mass Grave
Local leaders and many others have referred to this as a “mass grave,” and they are entirely correct. Of the remains in the cemetery area, only three have been positively identified. Unfortunately, due to neglect and mishandling, it is unlikely many more will be identified. Many remains have been dug up and reburied at least three times; other remains have been entirely destroyed or further blended together by blasting. Recently Phil Tkacz, ESH Cemetery Preservation Project President, was planting tulip bulbs and came across what we believe to be a human vertebra within about six inches of ground level. This contradicts what we, the ESH Cemetery Preservation Project, have always been told: that the reburials were five to eight feet deep.
It is ESH Cemetery Preservation Project’s feeling that there are likely tens of thousands more buried throughout the original ESH acreage, extending as far as what is now Lexmark. Such is true of many other state hospital cemeteries around the country of similar size with a similar timeline. In fact, we have just recently spotted an area that we believe may be an African-American cemetery in another part of the ESH grounds.
At the current cost of between $5,000 – $10,000 per reburial, is it any wonder the state is not too concerned with helping us and living relatives locate graves? Do the math yourself: 10,000 reburials x $10,000 = well, let’s just call that an uncomfortable sum.
A spate of recent national media has focused attention on somewhat similar conditions within the Arlington National Cemetery (though on a much smaller scale). Articles in the Washington Post have examined the loss or misplacement of perhaps thousands of remains in the Arlington National Cemetery. We regard Arlington National Cemetery as an important patriotic symbol, and those who are interred there are considered to be heroic. This is a tragic story, but since the public outcry, officials at least seem to be scurrying to amend this appalling situation.
The same cannot be said for most of the hundreds of thousands buried on state hospital grounds around the United States, though those numbers do, of course, include many military veterans.
Access to Records
At best, there are state hospital cemeteries that have excellent death and burial records and allow citizens unimpeded access to them. Many others have well-marked graves or, lacking markers, reasonable coordinates. However, there are many state hospitals with poor records and few marked graves. But to our knowledge, Eastern State Hospital stands alone for its overall lack of marked graves and, most importantly, the continual denial and rude disregard of relatives and concerned citizens who wish to have access to what records might exist.
The ESH Cemetery Preservation Project has been working for access to the records: “The issue about records concerning the death or burial of patients has been the most frustrating thing by far,” Tkacz said.
“Relatives have to fight an uphill battle to get records of deceased, even those that died over 100 years ago,” Tkacz continued. “Even if they manage to get someone to talk to them, there is a court fee to get copies of the records. Some relatives have been treated rudely over the phone when they call medical records at the hospital. I know first hand.”
“I have personally been trying for three years to get access to a list of names for those that died or were buried at ESH. I get different stories depending who I talk to. Sometimes they say no records like that exist or the HIPAA excuse. The most recent is that I have to get a court order to get permission to view any old records,” Tkacz said.
These records are all over 50 years old, the last burial being in the 1950s (most are over 100 years old), and we believe not to be subject to privacy regulations set forth under The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).
Tkacz and genealogist Mary Hatton, along with a handful of others, have worked tirelessly to provide relatives with information about those presumed buried on the grounds. Hatton alone has recovered records, often from ancient newspaper obituaries and similar unofficial records, identifying over 1,000 people who died while at ESH. They have also worked towards creating a more dignified landscape within the cemetery area.
With Bluegrass Community and Technical College transitioning to this property, there is optimism that, at the very least, the cemetery area will be improved. In fact, progress along these lines can be seen. Recently $61,000 was earmarked for cemetery landscape improvements which should be completed late this autumn.
But a larger problem remains: the total lack of access to death and burial records which are housed in the archives of Bluegrass Regional Mental Health and Mental Retardation and in the State Archives. Though the ESH Preservation Project is considering a civil suit as requests for records and information have been continually denied, it would be much healthier for all, especially relatives who are still coming to terms with the degrading circumstances of their loved ones’ burials, if all could agree to work through this together. Many other state hospitals have done just that.
Q & A with Bruce Burris, founder and member of the ESH Cemetery Preservation Project
Q: Essentially, as you tell it , you stumbled upon a mass grave. What has this experience been like for you?
BB: There is an air of unreality – we get used to the idea of mass graves through the media, but I really only thought of a mass grave in terms of other: other continents, other people. Initially, I was very apprehensive and a little scared. The scale of the site was daunting – a relatively small space in which thousands were recently reburied and already forgotten.
For the first year or so, I kept the information about the cemetery pretty much to myself. This was mostly for selfish reasons: I wasn’t sure what, if anything, I should or could do about it. I’m an atheist, but I admit to feeling a kind of responsibility to, and love for, those souls. I can only imagine the kind of suffering many experienced during their lifetimes.
Over time, I did a bit of research and found that state hospital cemeteries were being researched by organizations in other states. That information was comforting. Also, another thing happened that I could not have predicted; it turned out that those buried at ESH had relatives who were alive and wanted information about their loved ones.
These factors convinced me to advertise a general meeting for all those who might be interested in researching and restoring the cemetery. Thankfully Phil, our ESH Preservation Project president and Mary Hatton, our genealogist, were at the first meeting.
Q: The ESH Cemetery Preservation Project keeps asserting that there are most likely many more thousands buried throughout ESH’s current and former property. Why?
BB: Of course we cannot answer definitely as we have not been allowed access to records. Initially we were told that there were about 2,000 buried in the current cemetery. We now can account for about 4,000 and believe there may be as many as 7,000.
Our estimate of tens of thousands still buried throughout the original grounds is based on numbers which are shared by other state hospitals of similar size, etc. In these instances, numbers ranging from 20,000 to 60,000 are not uncommon – and remember ESH is the second oldest mental hospital in the country.
The “current” cemetery (the one I stumbled upon) was created in the 1970s and consists of graves moved in the 1950s from what was IBM (and is currently Lexmark) and from the Loudon Street extension which was constructed in the 1970s. It was during the construction of this road that a significant number of remains were found. These included at least some of the remains which were recovered at the IBM site just a few years before, reburied, and eventually forgotten in an area in which the Loudon Street Extension was planned and constructed.
In a span of just a few years, those graves were completely forgotten and shamefully only came to light during blasting for the road, during which bystanders were showered with bits of bone and fabric. These remains were then moved to the current cemetery which was created to hold bodies found elsewhere, in effect mixing many remains. Some bodies have been buried at least three times.
For more information, visit the Eastern State Hospital Cemetery Preservation Project on Facebook or The Forgotten: The Eastern State Hospital Project at www.kykinfolk.com/esh.