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Margie Campbell

Saving Graves

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San Joaquin County, CA
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Saving Graves

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The following story was found in an old Stockton Newspaper film located at the Caesar Chavez branch of San Joaquin Public Library in Stockton, CA.  It gives one a fair account of how the burials were handled at the State Insane Asylum/Hospital in 1898.

From the Weekly Mail
Stockton, CA
Saturday, March 12, 1898

Burying the Asylum Dead

Where the Poor Unfortunate of the State Hospital Go.

Laid to Rest in Numbered Graves by Fellow Madmen-- Relatives Too Proud to Pay the Last Tribute.

(Reported by Miss Bean.)
In speaking of public institutions in this city people will often say "I wonder what disposition the authorities make of the bodies of the poor unfortunates who die friendless and alone in the insane asylum," for Stockton has no medical college where a corpse in a very necessary adjunct in the pursuit of a student's studies.  In larger cities those who die outcasts in public refuges, be it hospital or jail, winds up, as a general rule, on the slab of some dissecting-room.  "Subjects," as the lifeless bodies are called, are always at a premium.  The prices range from a dollar to fifteen dollars or more, when deaths of county wards occur less frequently.

It may be to many a source of relief to know that the bodies of neither the unidentified nor those who die while public charges of Stockton ever figure in the barter and sale, as it were, of human flesh.

When a patient in the asylum for the insane breathes his or her last a blank is filled out, giving date, name, age, the day the deceased entered the asylum and other marks that enable the attendants in that office to find in a few seconds whether there are any relatives or friends to be communicated with.  If so, friends are notified at once.  As is often the case, those to whom word is sent are too poor to bear the expense of shipping the body or even paying for a burial.  Others send notes asking the Superintendent to make all arrangements for a burial in their stead, as a sort of pride forbids them from giving publicity to the death of a relative who passed away in an insane asylum.  It is generally conceded a misfortune and not a disgrace for any poor mortal to be compelled to end his days in a madhouse, yet there are those who would not move a finger toward defraying the expenses even for a decent funeral of one who is part of their flesh and blood, for fear the incident may become public property, thereby causing them a little humiliation.

Under these circumstances the Superintendent tries to do what he considers proper.  A body is taken from a ward on a stretcher to the morgue by patients, who act as the only pallbearers, accompanied by an attendant whose duty it is to see that the remains are washed and dressed, ready for interment.

As visitors enter the morgue of the asylum their first impression is that they are in a public vault, as tier upon tier of coffins are stacked up as high as the ceiling, nearly.  In this department the remains of a patient are left at least twenty-four hours, as required by law, but it often happens they are kept days at a time at the request of some friend or relative.  The shroud of a man I saw in this place last Tuesday consisted of woolen socks, new canton flannel trousers, a worn but clean undershirt of same material, and a polished white shirt with rolled collar and little black bow-tie.  The man was freshly shaven, and his hair was neatly brushed.

The common redwood box, shaped somewhat after the style of old-fashioned coffins, had a coating  of a brownish paint on it.  These boxes are very thin and have no linings; a bit of straw covered with a clean piece of muslin answers the same purpose, as do any of the more lavish head-rests.  When all is made ready the patients again carry the remains of their fellow-man to the hearse in waiting, and then they are driven out to the grave, to do the work of grave-diggers and pall bearers as well.

I happened to take a drive out through the cemetery last December, when I saw a little funeral procession of asylum patients going on a little distance from me.  I alighted and had to climb down and out of a ditch about nine feet deep and almost as wide, in order to reach the part of the place given over to the asylum's dead.  There  was a scrimmage going on about the grave being too short for the coffin.  All were talking at once.  The coffin was lowered and hoisted two or three times, and finally it was forced in place with spades.  The coffin with its contents was handled with anything but the respect and deference usually shown the most humble creature who dies in any place called "home."  But what does it matter to the poor soul who is at last freed from a miserable existence?  At least we shall all be on an equal footing when the time comes for us to be put under the sod. 

Thousands of little white sticks mark row after row of graves; 1753 was the number over the grave which was just filled in, though there were nine others ready for occupancy.  These looked like gaping wounds in the earth.  They were dug very close to one another--not much more than a foot apart.  Out of nearly 2,000 graves there were but a half dozen marked by headstones, bearing names and ages of the deceased.

Some of these had only the initials and place and time of birth.  One was marked Y5-M-T -- representing something on the open pages of a book.

"Here lies Addie sheltered and safe from Sorrow," was the most appropriate inscription engraved upon another marble tombstone.

In marked contrast to these humble and unknown graves are the handsome vaults and burial places of those on the "other side," but alas, all shall be alike in the eyes of God, when we shall have reached "the other side."

the institution has a dissecting room, but it is used only in cases where patients die from some cause requiring investigation.

This site is dedicated to all those unfortunate enough to have died while under the care of Stockton State Hospital, and all Mental institutions everywhere. 
May there be dignity in death, as there was none in life.

Please let your public officials know that you support caring for those buried in these state run institutions.  Californians please support SB 1448