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Remembering With Dignity: Volunteers are sought to help with state hospital cemetery effort

Three small wooden stakes mark rows of bodies buried beneath the earth at the Hastings State Hospital cemetery in southeastern Hastings. A group of activists has successfully lobbied to have markers placed in the cemetery to honor those buried there. The group is seeking help with the project. Anyone interesting helping should contact Remembering With Dignity at 651-641-0297 or should attend a public meeting at noon Thursday, July 29, at Green Mill.

The journey to remember the more than 13,000 people buried in state institutions' cemeteries in Minnesota continues, but at the former Hastings State Hospital cemetery, the end of the journey nears.

Many living in the area are still not aware of what is there -- 901 people buried in what had been unmarked graves. Many have no family members still alive. It was a different time in the state's history.

Since 1994, Remembering With Dignity has been marking graves in institution cemeteries like the one in Hastings. Remembering with Dignity is a coalition of disability rights organizations, working to honor people who lived and died in Minnesota's state institutions.

Minnesota had more than 13,000 graves marked by only a numbered cement block, or no marker at all. The numbered grave markers have been a reminder of a system that separated people from the community and denied many of their basic human rights and dignity.

Over the years, Remembering With Dignity has been winning its fight. They are now pleased with the state's response.

There's a final push under way to finish the project in Hastings, and Remember With Dignity is seeking some volunteers here in Hastings who can help complete this project.

"What we need is help from people in looking for some of the old markers which have been thrown over the area's cliff (into the Sand Coulee area) and some people to help us count the markers we have and double check them," said Halle O'Falvey, community organizer with Remembering With Dignity. "We're almost done here."

More than 5,000 graves now have markers in at state cemeteries in Anoka, Faribault, Willmar, Cambridge, Owatonna, St. Peter, Moose Lake, Rochester and the more than 700 in Hastings.

In particular, the group is also pleased with Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty signing a public apology, although with a stipulation, to the families of people who were improperly /wrongfully institutionalized in state hospitals and homes.

The public apology, approved by the 2010 Legislature, notes some of the questionable treatments and care procedures that were part of the programs, including making their family members wards of the state.

When Pawlenty signed the measure, he did so with his own clarification, "However, it is important to note this resolution also negatively paints a very broad brush the actions of state employees, who, in most cases, took actions based in good faith and scientific understanding of the time."

To help do its work, Remembering With Dignity obtained some funds from the Legislature in 2004 to begin the work of placing markers

More than 500 markers were placed at graves in Hastings in 2007. Another 175 were dedicated in a public ceremony last October.

O'Falvey said another ceremony will be held this fall to mark another dedication of markers at the Hastings cemetery.

The Minnesota Veterans Home is now located on the grounds of the former state hospital, and the Veteran's Home maintenance department has kept the field mowed.

The cemetery, located on state property at the southeast city limits, overlooks a Sand Coulee area rich in environmental history.

Anyone interesting in counting markers and/or retrieving old markers should contact Remembering With Dignity at 651-641-0297.

Another public meeting in Hastings is scheduled for noon, Thursday, July 29, at the Green Mill. All interested are welcome.