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State funding for ‘unmarked graves’ project in jeopardy

Decorated graves in the cemetery at the old Hastings state hospital.
Photo by Steve Date
Decorated graves in the cemetery at the old Hastings state hospital.

MinnPost wrote in November about 8,700 Minnesotans laid to rest in unmarked graves. They’d passed their days in state hospitals struggling with the likes of mental illness, developmental disabilities, tuberculosis, alcoholism and epilepsy, only to die as anonymously as they had lived. No head stones marked their graves — only numbers scratched on metal tags or chiseled on concrete cylinders.

But ours was a hopeful story. We told you about Remembering With Dignity, a project of Advocating Change Together, a grass-roots disability group in St. Paul. Since 1997, the group has raised private funds and worked to persuade the Legislature to allocate $950,000 to the project, resulting in the placing of named markers on about 4,000 graves.

Weak state economy endangers project
However, with Minnesota facing a down economy, state money for the project may dry up this year. Gov. Tim Pawlenty and legislators are scrambling to deal with a projected $935 million budget deficit over the next two years. Some programs may be easier reduction targets than others.

Still, Advocating Change Together board member Melvin Haagenson feels the state should keep right on paying its debt to the anonymous deceased. “It stinks. It’s not right for the people who were buried in these unnamed graves.”

Also, there’s the complication that the Senate, unlike the House, hasn’t requested money for the marker project this time around.

House alone in its support at moment

The House presented a proposed allocation of $135,000 to be considered by the Capital Investment Conference Committee, which includes Senate and House members. “We at least have it in our bill. Right now we’re the only one bringing the issue forward,” said Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, co-chair of the committee.

An earlier bill had requested about $2.1 million.

The House-proposal of $135,000 would pay for about 500 gravestones and at least continue the project. “We’re committed on an ongoing basis to this project, that steady investment, until it is done,” Hausman said. 

ACT is asking its members to email or call committee members, including Hausman (rep.alice.hausman@house.mn) and co-chair Sen. Keith Langseth, (sen.keith.langseth@senate.mn) DFL- Glyndon, and register their disapproval.

Asked how the group can push for project funding in a bad economy when living human beings need help, Jim Fassett-Carman, project coordinator for Remembering With Dignity, replies: “I think this does affect living human beings. Think how this looks to people with disabilities, what the state of Minnesota is saying to them.”

Besides, he adds, “How long do you want this project to take? Costs are only going up.”

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