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Lived Experience

A Final Insult

by Larry DeAngelo on 02/20/17

A Final Insult

Lawrence  DeAngelo

In a quiet, field, guarded by maple and pine trees in the northeast corner of the town - owned Westborough Pine Grove Cemetery rests 500 souls in graves marked only by small numbered cement cylinders.

From 1921 to 1990 Westborough State Hospital sent patients who died in their care, and whose families made no burial provision, to the Pine Grove Cemetery to be buried in numbered graves (unmarked graves).   Until very recently, the practice of burying patients of mental hospitals in unmarked graves follows a pattern emulated throughout the country. 

Here is one Westborough State patient’s story.   Her name has been changed.

All Lynda could see was a bright light on the ceiling above her bed.    She was afraid to move her head.   The unbearable chest pains were gone.   Slowly she moved her eyes around and noticed the wires attached to her body.   Had they come for her - the strange ones that tortured her every movement for as long as she could remember?    Maybe not, there were no voices.   Wait – she could hear a consistent tone beep, beep, beep.   Was this a signal?    

Wait, someone was in the room.   A voice:   “Lynda I am your nurse you have been moved from Westborough State to our Worcester hospital.    You have some heart problems.   How do you feel?”

Lynda cautiously moved her head to look at the stranger.  “Will my mother and father be coming,”   she asked.    “Not today Lynda,” the voice said.   You rest now.  I will be back shortly. “

“I will wait for you.”  Lynda said.

Lynda didn’t wait, she died alone that morning.   Her last thought was about her small jewelry box, a gift from her mom and dad she carried with her for 40 years as she shuffled around Westborough State Hospital.  Her parents had promised to visit her but after dropping her off at the hospital when she was 20, they never returned. No one prayed at her bedside, or at her gravesite.    No friends or families came to pay their last respects.

With quiet efficiency Lynda was moved from the hospital and placed in an unmarked grave in the northeast corner of the Pine Grove Cemetery, 106 South Street, Westborough, Massachusetts.    A small cement cylinder marked her gave with the number 433.   Quickly, grass covered the numbers and Lynda was forgotten.

 

 

The Westborough State hospital for the Insane (later renamed Westborough State Hospital) was established in 1864 and closed in 2010.    According to a Worcester State Hospital Annual Report, Westborough Hospital for the Insane was established with the mission of “……receiving and treating acute cases of insanity…   It is a hospital not an asylum.”   State hospitals in Massachusetts were designed to be self-sufficient institutions that had farms, made clothing, and provided health and recreation facilities for thousands of patients with chronic mental illness.  The goal was always to provide the best psychiatric care available.   Unfortunately, until the last half of the 20th century treatments were generally ineffective and, for many patients prescribed involuntarily.  

Treatments ranged from massage, bedrest, and hydrotherapy to psychotropic medications, electric convulsive therapy, and frontal lobotomies.    Patients were often restrained, and isolated.    Until the 1950s most patients lived their entire life in the institutions.   Some patients gave birth and their children were usually placed in orphanages.  Because of the stigma associated with mental illness and often because of the advice received from hospital professionals families abandoned their relatives to these institutions. 

As economic conditions varied in the state, and government focused on wars, crime and political matters state hospital budgets and staff levels suffered, resulting in care becoming more about the management of patients rather than the recovery of patients.    Recovery was not a goal.   It was a delusion.  Many patients were abused physically and mentally, isolated, and lived a lonely, dull, controlled existence.   The practice of burying patients in unmarked graves was the final insult.

In 2010 the Department of Mental Health closed Westborough State Hospital.  The grounds and buildings were left to decay and crumble.    Unauthorized visitors broke into buildings and stole property, were able to find patient records, and some reporters published these records.    The buildings and 90 acres of the original hospital site are now owned by the City of Westborough.   The city plans to sell the site to developers.     A memorial is planned at the Pine Grove Cemetery to remember the Westborough State patients buried there in unmarked graves.

 

Lawrence DeAngelo is President of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) of Metrowest.   He is a co-teacher for NAMI’s free Family Caregiver education program that starts March 2, 2017 in Marlborough.   For more information call 508 251 9595.