JACKSON, Miss. (AP) – Thousands of bodies of mental patients remain buried on the grounds of the University of Mississippi Medical Center, and officials are stymied about what to do.
They asked the attorney general’s office for permission to cremate the more than 2,000 bodies found east of the dental school. The office’s opinion was no.
They asked the attorney general’s office for permission to move the bodies, most believed to be from a cemetery outside what was known as the Mississippi State Lunatic Asylum. The office said in an opinion that the bodies could be moved – but only on campus.
The problem? There is no room for that many.
“It’s fair to say that it’s impracticable to relocate all of them on the campus as it’s currently configured,” said Tom Fortner, a UMMC spokesman.
In its opinion, the attorney general’s office cited state law, which gives UMMC permission to rebury bodies in the potter’s field on campus. Another state law declared that all archaeological sites are “Mississippi landmarks,” which are not to be altered without permission from the Mississippi Department of Archives and History Board of Trustees.
In 2013, while constructing a road on the 164-acre campus, UMMC officials discovered 66 graves. Mississippi State University and the state Department of Archives and History played roles in recovering the bodies.
When the hospital began work last year on a parking garage, underground radar revealed 1,000 bodies were buried there. North of there, radar revealed more bodies – this time more than 1,000.
As a result, UMMC officials had to move not only the parking garage, but also the $11 million American Cancer Society Gertrude C. Ford Hope Lodge, now being built at the former site of Schimmel’s Restaurant.
Officials are hoping to construct the new Children’s Safe Center farther east of the dental school, where Fortner said there would be “minimal contact with existing gravesites.”
Finding these graves “on a prime part of the core campus has already impacted our plans,” he said, “so we expect that to continue to be something we have to work around until we can find an acceptable alternative.”
UMMC officials are now working with experts on a plan “to evaluate the archaeological and historical importance of the gravesites and anything else that might be on the property,” Fortner said. “To some extent that will influence what our options are, but we also want to document and preserve whatever might be there for its own inherent value.”
Dr. Luke Lampton, chairman of the state Board of Health, who has researched and written about the asylum’s history, said old maps of the area showed cemeteries “everywhere. They went for miles.”
One way to preserve the history and dignity of these patients would be to rebury them at the cemetery at the State Hospital in Whitfield and build a memorial to honor them, he said.
To simply keep them beneath the ground does a disservice to these patients, he said. “Where they are now, they’re forgotten. It would be a way of recognizing their humanity.”
In 1855, the Mississippi State Lunatic Asylum opened after schoolteacher-turned-mental health reformer Dorothea Dix rallied support for construction of the $175,000 asylum – a far cry from the attics and jails where the mentally ill were often being chained.
Of the 1,376 patients admitted between 1855 and 1877, more than one in five died. MSU students and professors are now studying the reasons for those deaths.
In addition to those from the asylum, graves on the UMMC campus could include those buried in a church cemetery and possibly Civil War soldiers, Lampton said.
James Owen Stubbs fought in Mississippi’s 33rd Infantry and was captured and sent to a prison in Alton, Illinois. Shortly after being released home to Panola County, the 33-year-old man returned to war.
He was wounded, apparently in the Battle of Champion Hill on May 16, 1863.
His great-granddaughter, Mary Burton, believes he was taken to the asylum since it “had the best known surgeon.” He lived almost a month before dying.
She suspects his grave is there and has made her family’s DNA available.
After the Civil War ended, the mental facility expanded to house 300 patients, and the area became known as “Asylum Hill,” a neighborhood that included houses, a school and a church for former slaves, Cade Chapel Missionary Baptist Church.
The area eventually saw construction of a fertilizer factory, a Baptist orphanage and a sanatorium for those suffering from tuberculosis.
In 1935, Mississippi moved the asylum to its present location at Whitfield.
Burton said she hopes officials will put up a sign to remember those buried at the asylum.
“Any of those people that went through that needs to be remembered as somebody who lived and died,” she said.
Fortner said UMMC has begun discussions about creating a memorial to recognize that “the individuals who are buried there are properly remembered. We don’t know what form that might take, but I feel sure this is something we will do.”
Jackson-area consultant Pam Johnson, who has called for a memorial, welcomed the news.
She envisions a meditation garden there.
“It’s difficult to think that some 2,000 people have been buried there with little or no evidence of their existence to those of us who have scurried around them all this time,” she said.
Whatever UMMC decides to do about the graves, Fortner said, “we will afford the remains of these individuals the utmost dignity and respect.”