Forty high school students and their history teachers are restoring dignity to nearly 300 patients who died in Waltham institutions for the physically and mentally disabled and were buried in unnamed graves.
The Gann Academy juniors have spent months working inside and outside the classroom, digging through public records and Ancestry.com to identify the 298 people who died at the now-closed Metropolitan State Hospital and the Fernald School in Waltham before their burials at the Metfern Cemetery between 1947 and 1977.
“The goal overall was to bring respect to these people,” Gann Academy student Anna Kamens said. “They didn’t have services. They didn’t put names on their graves. The only thing they have is a number and a letter.”
That letter – C or P – represents Catholic or Protestant, and the number is based on the order of their burial.
Anna and her classmate Zoey Zilber visited the cemetery for the first time Thursday since uncovering the identities and stories of some of the 300 souls.
“Slowly watching their stories unfold, finding out that they weren’t in an institution their whole lives and they had family, and some people even had kids,” Zoey said. “It’s like one of the coolest things we’ve ever done, and probably will ever do.”
Metfern Cemetery is about a 15-minute walk into the woods on the state property where the shuttered hospital once stood. Many who walk the trails don’t know the cemetery exists.
But the students’ work has already garnered attention. One woman, Helen McElroy, was finally able to locate her daughter Lucy’s grave. Lucy was the last Protestant burial.
Teachers Alex Green and Yoni Kadden have led the students in the initiative, but they say the project has been so successful because of the kids’ hard work, interest and commitment.
“How far the students have gotten with this in these few months, it’s mind-blowing. It will fill a book,” said Green, a Harvard Law fellow who helped the city of Waltham acquire the Fernald Historic District years ago and became interested in the story of the cemetery.
“It was like a city,” Green said of the Waltham institutions. “There were a million stories in it, and they all deserve to be told.”
Uncovering the patients’ lives before the institution and inside the walls has been fascinating, but unearthing details of their deaths – many caused by similar treatable ailments – and finding autopsy reports that show abuse have revealed the harsh reality of treatment for the disabled.
"Disability is a story that has been marginalized,” said Kadden, chair of Gann Academy’s history department. “And I believe it is our obligation as human beings in this world to make sure that all of our stories are told with honor and dignity.”
The students are simultaneously working on designs for signs to erect at the cemetery displaying each person’s name and story.
“What’s really special about this project is that it really feels like we’re making a difference in people’s lives,” Anna said. “Hearing about all the people that have reached to us about this project saying that they worked at Fernald, or their relatives were buried in this graveyard, or that they’ve passed this place every day and never knew its history… makes us feel that we’re really making a huge difference in the community.”
© 2019 Cox Media Group.