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Commentaries to the Lexington Herald Leader

 

Take care deciding fate of Eastern State property

April 16, 2007

By Bruce Burris (posted with permission by same)

 

One morning five years ago, I stumbled upon an almost forgotten piece of Lexington's past.

While exploring the grounds of the Hope Center on Loudon Avenue to assess its potential for a community garden, I came upon a broken chain-link fence surrounding an overgrown plot, perhaps an acre in size.

The space seemed appropriate for gardening, so I asked a man cutting grass nearby whether he knew anything about the enclosure. He told me the lot contained the unmarked remains of some 4,400 people who had died while residing at Eastern State Hospital.

Appalled, I wondered how so many bodies could fit into a space not much larger than the average suburban yard.

I have since found out.

The makeshift cemetery may include most of the hospital's original tract of land, from Newtown Pike and Fourth Street to what is now Lexmark.

Blasting during the construction of the Loudon Avenue extension in the 1980s blew bone and clothing fragments into the air. Some of the remains are thought to belong to bodies that had been disinterred and reburied during the construction of the IBM (now Lexmark) facility in the 1950s.

If this is so, their reburial in the makeshift cemetery behind the Hope Center is at least the third time those remains have been moved, and it may account for why some are mixed together.

In 2005, the remains of 11 people were discovered during construction near the Newtown Pike entrance. I am told that so far, the state has spent at least $30,000 attempting to identify them. The 11 where reburied last week.

One respected community historian has suggested that there may be more than our current estimate of 10,000 bodies. This seems possible considering that the institution, which opened in 1822, is the second-oldest state hospital in the country and, at times, housed up to 2,000 residents.

Most state hospital cemeteries in the United States have a system for accounting for those buried on their grounds. But records for Eastern State apparently do not exist. Burials stopped in the 1950s, and there are only three name-bearing markers along with one relatively small memorial marker.

Even people who worked at the hospital for more than 20 years had no idea where the cemetery was.

Since last June, Mary Hatton and other members of the Eastern State Hospital Cemetery Club have searched public records and managed to find the names of more than 1,500 people buried somewhere on the hospital grounds.

Examinations of cemeteries on hospital grounds in other parts of Kentucky have found, as we did at Eastern State, that many of the people buried in those plots have living relatives.

It is unconscionable that we have permitted the remains of their loved ones to be treated in this manner, and every effort must now be made to create dignified resting places for them.

The state plans to relocate the hospital and eventually transfer ownership of the land, a parcel of 70-plus acres almost in the center of Lexington.

Disposition of the property is all the more significant when one considers Lexington's moratorium on development. At least one group, including some elected state and city officials, has been meeting for some time to discuss the issue.

This property also contains significant historical links to the African-American community, as well as structures on the historical registry.

In light of this, real community input, by way of public meetings, should be sought to determine its future use.

The club is working on a proposal to the state to ensure that the grounds of the fenced cemetery are maintained in a dignified fashion and that a more ambitious landscaping-memorial plan will be introduced in the future.

 

RE: Graves complicate plans for Eastern State Hospital land

April 16, 2007

By Lee J Anderson (posted with permission by same)

Federal law has strict regulations regarding relocation of graves disturbed by new highway construction. Our Transportation Cabinet is charged with enforcing the law, and supervisors are assigned to the task in every district. For the uninitiated, the job desirability ranks with cleaning sewers for a living. But it soon became one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.

The first task is to identify the remains. In older cemeteries some gravestones are unmarked, and some have no gravestones at all. These people became more than cold slabs of granite and unmarked stones scattered over a plot of land. I found they were real people, with real families and real lives. I developed a strong sense of responsibility for them.

The second task is to contact the next of kin. The vast majority were very concerned, and most became very involved. Some didn't know about their ancestors, forgotten and lost in time. It was a great privilege to be a part of their reunions, and to help all of the families to find some comfort in knowing the departed would be treated with care, dignity, and respect.

The thousands of forgotten and abandoned people buried on the grounds of Eastern State Hospital deserve the very best our community can offer them. At the very least, a good portion of the property should be preserved for a prominent and dignified memorial. We owe it to them, to their families, and to ourselves.

 

 

 

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