Everyday Life

In Death as in Life: Stigma In and Beyond an American Total Institution

Total institutions – asylums, prisons, the military and the like – fundamentally re-form their inmates, distancing them from the world outside. Here we see how this persists even after death, a product of neglect and willful stigmatization of the mentally ill, even as dis-Ability advocates fight against the injustice and indignity. -Jeff

On any given summer afternoon, light traffic hums along Route 62 as local teenagers armed with beer, and families with stocked picnic baskets, travel for a day of whitewater rafting, swimming, hiking, and waterfall-jumping in Zoar Valley, New York, a state park located thirty-five miles south of Buffalo. Few notice the grassy field where hundreds of people were laid to rest without dignity. I had made the trek from Buffalo to Zoar Valley several times each summer for nearly a decade, and never noticed the cemetery of the Gowanda Psychiatric Center (GPC) on Route 62. It is easy to miss:  the grave markers lay flat against the ground, with no sign marking the site as a cemetery. To any car cruising past, the space looks like an open pasture amongst the vast surrounding farmlands.

The prisoners of the Collins Correctional Facility, the institution that now owns the property, occasionally mow the cemetery. Riding mowers glide over the field of flat nameless grave markers, with little further maintenance from those mandated to tend to it. But as graves are tended, they are also destroyed. The combination of the weight of the mower and poor drainage had caused many gravestones to sink into the earth. Nothing, then, marks the final resting place of the nameless former inmates of GPC.

The Gowanda Psychiatric Center, a total institution housing people with mental illnesses and developmental disabilities, opened in 1898. The residents, under supervision, grew their food, prepared their meals, and buried their dead. GPC was an example of what Erving Goffman studied as a total institution:  the patients slept, played and worked enclosed within the institution’s high walls (1961:5). Every part of their lives was contained in a finite space with clear boundaries—boundaries within which they lived and often died. Those who passed away as patients of the GPC were laid to rest just beyond those high walls, beyond the view of the patients. Even in total institutions, where every act is under surveillance, death in America is kept outside.

In the summer 2007, I stepped into this space which held the forgotten, humbled with my fellow volunteers by the project presented before us. Mainly composed of employees of People Inc., a non-profit that serves the developmentally disabled throughout western New York, the volunteers of Operation Dignity met throughout the summer to try to restore dignity to the forgotten.

The gravestones are simple slabs of concrete, the cheapest materials available, and many were overgrown with grass, moss, and lichen. Several were broken into pieces by expanding tree roots or by the weight of the mower. Careful to “do no harm,” we painstakingly recorded all observable details of each stone—any visible text or number, the location of any cracks, the amount and location of any moss—and cemented the documentation with a photograph prior to restoration. Armed with stiffed bristled brushes (metal bristles were banned for fear it would aid in the disrepair), soap and water, the volunteers spent several hot summer afternoons scrubbing each gravestone until the markings were as discernible as possible—a three digit number, a symbol of religion (a cross to denote Catholicism, wreath for Protestantism, or star of David for Jewish patients) and occasionally a name and dates birth and death. The graves were divided by religion and laid in consecutive numerical order, but only the stones, of those who were buried in the 1980s, on the periphery, had names and dates. The Jewish quarter was separated by line of tall pine trees. Those who constructed the cemetery seemed to consider religion to be significantly more important that personal identity. For over a century, individuals who died in the GPC were buried anonymously.

Erving Goffman describes how the multifaceted identities of individuals are stripped upon arrival to a total institution. Individuals are processed through the bureaucratic system:  “the new arrival … [is] shaped and coded into an object that can be fed into the administrative machinery of the establishment” (1961:16). Those who died within the walls of the GPC took this quantification literally with them to their grave. Tragically, the force that produces this quantification is still at work.

After a summer of dirty fingernails, blistered hands, and sweaty brows, we restored the cemetery on Route 62. All known grave markers were made visible and scrubbed clean. A sign now stands erect at the edge of the busy road, clearly designating the pasture as a site of memory. Landscaping stones encircle three bushes of mums planted in the mulch at the foot of the wooden sign, whose bold golden letters read, “Gowanda Psychiatric Center Memorial Cemetery.” At the entrance of the cemetery, a granite headstone was erected. Also surrounded by mums, the monolith holds smooth pebbles for the deceased of Jewish faith. A dove bracing for flight, perched on a branch of flowers, is etched into the stone, which reads:






David Mack-Hardiman, one of the leading organizers of the volunteers, explained in an interview to a Buffalo News reporter on October 26, 2009:  “Records containing the names of those buried in the cemetery were lost after the hospital shut down.” This, though, proved not to be accurate. A local archivist attended the Ceremony of Remembrance—a moving service in which the signage and monument were unveiled with the release of a rehabilitated red-tailed hawk, Jewish and Christian prayers, and speeches by advocates and self-advocates. He emerged among the reporters, activists, volunteers, and families and told Mack-Hardiman that he had a list of names that corresponded to the numbers on the graves.

Volunteers then hoped to finish their work, to use this new information for a memorial that would list the newly identified graves. But the local community, according to Mack-Hardiman, resisted the erection of a marker which would identify the names with the numbers. Gowanda is home to less than three-thousand residents, and the stigma of having a loved one institutionalized still resonates there. Many families did not want to discover that they had an aunt, cousin, or brother who was committed to the institution. They were pleased that the stones were cleaned and the cemetery respectfully marked, but the fear that a family name would appear publically associated with the institution was not communally acceptable.

Mack-Hardiman explained “Support for the restorations was slow in coming because mental illness [and disability] has long carried a stigma, and the institutionalized were deemed ‘not so worthy’ of proper burial by the state that cared for them and even by their families.” The once invisible were now seen, thanks to activist intervention, but not named. The opposition of the good people of Gowanda to the naming is a testament to the staying power of the stigma.

  • http://www.deliberatelyconsidered.com Jeffrey C. Goldfarb

    Stigma does have staying power, as revealed here. But I think it is important to remember as well, the good fight by such people as Ariel and her co workers. They fight against the power, with considerable success, .

  • Lcicero1

    Hello Jeffrey,
    My mom was Sandy Hooten, the woman who spearheaded this project. It is awesome to see that her work continues; I was there over the summer and was moved by the improvement of the conditions. “Let no soul go unnoticed” was her mantra. She is pleased, Im sure. Thank you for a wonderful article.

  • Lcicero1

    Hello Jeffrey,
    My mom was Sandy Hooten, the woman who spearheaded this project. It is awesome to see that her work continues; I was there over the summer and was moved by the improvement of the conditions. “Let no soul go unnoticed” was her mantra. She is pleased, Im sure. Thank you for a wonderful article.

  • Frank Broughton

    I think I know who this knowledgeable man is…. he knows everything Gowanda. I do want to say this – shame on the people of Gowanda who fought having names placed on the graves. One more smear on those who by no choice of their own had a sickness in the brain. I for one have seen mental illness on both sides of my family. I am not ashamed. My aunt suffered in that prison of souls.