NoC interviews Phil Tkacz
North of Center sat down with Eastern State Hospital Cemetery Preservation Project president Phil Tkacz to get an update on the mass graves that have been found over the years around the grounds of Eastern State Hospital (soon to become the Bluegrass Community and Technical College Newtown Pike campus) . On May 14, Tkacz and others will gather to both remember and properly re-bury the remains of a number of the hospital’s former patients.
North of Center: In December 2010, Bruce Burris published an article in North of Center on your attempts to draw public awareness and recognition to a mass grave discovered on the back side of the Eastern State Hospital lot. Bruce described the site as a “tiny spot, not much larger than a typical middle class backyard, [that] contains the remains of between 4,000 and 7,000 people — mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, politicians, shopkeepers, farmers…humans.” He also noted that “these numbers do not include the remains of the many thousands more we believe to be scattered throughout the original ESH property.” Can you update us on what new things you have found since then?
Phil Tkacz: We have not been able to ascertain a better number. The most recent graves found total 178. There are more in an area north of that, but the state’s budget prevents them from removing those remains at this time. As of this month, we have the names of 1,912 people buried on the property. These we have obtained mostly through death certificates and relatives that have shared information.
NoC: The 2010 article produced a massive amount of comments on our website. We had so much response we felt compelled to run a follow-up piece that collected some of the comments. To this day, it remains our most-commented-upon piece; as recently as this past March, you have had to respond to new queries. What have your actions tapped into?
PT: Unfortunately we haven’t been able to help most of those relatives with specific information other than whether or not they’re buried on the hospital property. It does show, despite the many years that have passed for some of the patients that have died, there are still relatives living looking for information about them and where their remains are.
NoC: Your story is partially about how, historically, we have treated the sick and damaged and poor amongst us. Do you see these issues continuing into our present public commitment to serve our entire community?
PT: The closure of many state hospitals in the U.S. didn’t really fix any problems. Today, jails, prisons, and homeless shelters have become the defacto asylums.
NoC: How have you been received by the state? The 2010 article noted that it has made access difficult to burial and death certificates—things that family members have also had difficulty accessing. Does that still remain the case?
PT: The state has not changed their stance on any old records unfortunately. There is a process to obtain records requests by family, but it is slow and many say they never get an answer. Federal laws concerning patient privacy and old records have changed. The state now says it is state law that keeps them from releasing any records. However, to date I have not been shown the law to support that. An iron coffin found in 2011has a person’s name on it. Unfortunately the state claims the name is protected by law and will never be given to anyone.
NoC: With the transfer of ownership from Eastern State Hospital to Bluegrass Community and Technical College, have you noted any difference in working relationship? What would you hope that the college might do?
PT: I can’t say there has been much of a difference yet. BCTC has told me they are interested in the cemetery, and we hope to be able to do more with the space, including a memorial, once they are moved in.
NoC: What is taking place on May 14?
PT: A short presentation at the cemetery will be given to explain the process that went on when the University of Kentucky did their research of the remains. There will then be a ceremony in which the remains will be re-interred in small boxes with the iron coffin that is intact.
The presentation will take place on May 14 at 11 am at the ESH gym (Megowant Building) and then move to the cemetery at 11:30 am for the reburial ceremony. The cemetery is located on the back end of the BCTC Newtown Pike campus, directly behind the Hope Center on Loudon Avenue. For more information, visit http://easternstatehospital.wordpress.com/