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Grave by grave, group restores Minnesotans’ forgotten lives

For 13 years, with little fanfare, a coalition of advocacy groups has been working to bring dignity to the lives and deaths of the anonymous former residents of Minnesota’s state hospitals and institutions.

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Ceremony at the old Hastings State Hospital cemetary

By Cynthia Boyd

Thursday, Nov. 8, 2007

In death as in life, a name symbolizes a human being. Yet at least 8,700 persons who lived and died in Minnesota state hospitals still lie in unnamed graves.           

In life, their days were marked by mental illness, developmental disabilities, tuberculosis, alcoholism, epilepsy. In death, their graves are marked by numbers scratched on metal tags or chiseled on tops of concrete cylinders about the size of a coffee can. 

“It almost inhumanizes them. Every human being deserves to be recognized. We’re all children of God,” said 22-year-old Heather Karsikas, who came to the cemetery at the old Hastings state hospital on a recent autumn day to honor the dead. Her great-grandfather, Jacob Karsikas, was one of those unknowns for way too long, buried there in 1921 with a valley view but no gravestone.

But attitudes have changed since 1866 — when the first state hospital opened — and into the 20th century, when the seriously disabled or ill were quietly sent away to state institutions and saddened families were urged to go on with their lives. When they died, those who were stigmatized and hidden in life became anonymous in death, buried in nameless graves at 19 cemeteries across the state. Only recently are their stories coming to light.    

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Since 1994, Remembering With Dignity — a project of the St. Paul-based Advocating Change Together (ACT) and other disability rights and advocacy groups — has been working to place granite stones with name, birth and death dates on every grave in state institution cemeteries from Hastings to Willmar, from St. Peter to Rochester.  

A labor of love   
It’s a laborious process. Staff and volunteers page through old state ledgers and records, matching grave site numbers to names and then names to death records, doing their best to decipher faded ink and illegible handwriting and catch errors in spelling and dates. Initially, there were more than 12,700 graves without names.   

In Minnesota, Remembering With Dignity lobbied the Legislature to add public funds to private donations.  Since 1997, $750,000 in state funds have been spent on the campaign. The Legislature appropriated $200,000 more this year. About 4,000 graves have been marked so far.

“It’s a travesty — what happened in the past,” Republican Rep. Denny McNamara, of Hastings, told a crowd of about 60 gathered at the Hastings burial grounds last month to celebrate the placing of 525 grave stones. “That’s the kind of thing the state should do,” he said “The state did a very wrong thing decades ago, but we’re trying to fix it.”           

Additionally, the project has had a ripple effect.  It has been “used to start a conversation about the state hospitals as institutions and about the horrors of these settings,” said Jim Fassett-Carman, project manager for Remembering With Dignity. Those times are a chapter in history the group does not want forgotten or repeated, he said. 

Generations ago, “The state system was to tell people institutionalization was the best option,” Fassett-Carman said.

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


Gudrun’s story
Take the story of little Gudrun Rafnson. She was a sickly child, third in her family, and born with serious disabilities in 1904 to a farm family barely making ends meet, says Lorna Rafness  a retired postmaster, who searched out her great-aunt’s story while doing a family history. 

“She was never able to walk or talk. She was like a helpless infant. They used the word imbecile then, though not in a mean way,” said Rafness, who lives in Mankato.

Years passed with the family of Icelandic descent eking out a living, she said, until the sixth child came along. That’s when the local doctor came to the family’s Minneota farm to urge the parents to send Gudrun to the School for the Feeble Minded in Faribault.

“The daughter has to go, or you’re going to lose the mother,” the doctor told the father, or so family memory plays out, Rafness said. Physical demands of farm work, child care, housekeeping and caring for a disabled child would be too great for the child’s mother, he said.

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Rafness said her grandmother let authorities take her daughter to the institution, but the decision took its toll: For 20 years, whether because of grief or shame, she wouldn’t go to town.

Gudrun died in 1916 at nearly 12 years old after a lifetime of chronic ear infections and a condition where her body could not absorb food.

Rafness says it comforts her that in death, at least, her great-aunt is remembered. Remembering With Dignity placed a stone on her grave in the West Cemetery of the old Faribault facility.

It doesn’t even matter, she said, that Gudrun’s last name is etched in stone as “Rafuson” instead of Rafnson, because of a medical records error.  “Gudrun’s life wasn’t perfect either,” she said. 

“It was out of compassion” that Minnesota created the state hospital system, intending to provide quality care, said Michael Tessneer, head of the State Operated Services Division of the Minnesota Department of Human Services. In those times, providing home care for the seriously ill or disabled was untenable and unaffordable for most families. 

The old names reflect the attitudes of the times: St. Peter Asylum for the Insane, Faribault School for Imbeciles, Cambridge State School and Hospital for Feeble-Minded and Epileptics.

“We look at those (names) today and we’re shocked anybody would talk that way, but it was accepted” then, said Tessneer. Later they would be renamed state hospitals and regional treatment centers.

Over the decades, conditions changed in the state hospitals. There were legal challenges to the institutional system because of overcrowding, lack of treatment and under-staffing.  In 1974, the U.S. District Court decision in Welsch vs. Likins was a catalyst in moving residents from state facilities located on multi-acre campuses to smaller, community-based housing and care, a transition called “de-institutionalizing.” 

Cemetery ceremonies
Three ceremonies have been held this summer and fall to mark the naming of graves at cemeteries in St. Peter, Rochester and Hastings.

In Hastings last month, a bagpiper played “Amazing Grace” at an event celebrating 526 lives and the grave stones laid there this year.

“This is a very special event to honor our sisters and brothers,” said Melvin Haagenson, a member of Advocating Change Together and Remembering With Dignity.  

Earl Karsikas, a carpenter from Cottage Grove, was there to memorialize his grandfather and thank the project for placing a memorial stone for Jacob Karsikas under a nearby oak tree last year.

“Nobody should be forgotten,” Karsikas said.

Karsikas learned accidentally about his grandfather’s life at the state hospital when a friend was showing him computer search engine capabilities for family research. His grandfather’s death certificate surfaced, listing “asylum” as his place of burial. His commitment at what was then the Hastings Asylum for the Insane had been a family secret.

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More digging showed Jacob had “been arrested trying to get into the White House” in 1910 to protest what he thought was an earlier, unjust arrest near his Duluth home. Commitment papers called the man “deranged.”  

“When I first learned about it, I didn’t think I wanted anybody to know,” Karsikas said, but he realized he wanted to honor the life of the Norwegian man as husband, father and church trustee.

Earl Vraa came to the cemetery from Durand, Wis., to honor his great-great-uncle, Jorgen Endre Wraa, the youngest son of Norwegian immigrants.

Jorgen,  who also spelled his name as “Vraa,” apparently suffered a stroke at age 20 that left him partially paralyzed, Vraa discovered in searching state records. As Jorgen’s physical health declined, he became emotionally ill, sometimes laughing uncontrollably or shouting at himself.  He was committed in 1891 and died at Hastings in 1923.

“That made me think about the life he went through and gave me some sleepless nights,” Vraa said. 

He thanked Remembering With Dignity for the stone placed this fall on his great-great-uncle’s grave. Then he walked along a row of sunlit monuments to place a fall bouquet on one special grave. 

“In memory of Jorgen,” he said.

Cynthia Boyd, a former reporter and columnist for the Pioneer Press, writes on education, health, social issues and other topics.  She can be reached at cboyd [at] minnpost [dot] com.