DANVERS — About two dozen people gathered Thursday morning at the former Danvers State Hospital to remember 770 former patients who died there and were buried in graves marked only by numbers.

“We come to this place together not to fix, not to judge, but to heal,” said Jaime Stripinis, reading a poem she had written. Stripinis works for the Northeast Recovery Learning Community in Lawrence, a program that helps people with mental illness move out into the community.

“I think it’s really important,” Stripinis said. “I think people with mental illness or in state hospitals are forgotten, and this was a good way to remember them.”

Thursday’s services, at two grave sites on the property on Hathorne Hill, were organized by local citizen advisory boards for the Department of Mental Health. The aim was not only to remember those who died, but to act as a call to action to address the stigma that still surrounds mental illness and to create modern mental health centers.

“It’s important for confronting issues today and remembering how people were treated in the past,” said Chris Sadkowski, a member of the citizen board.

Danvers state Rep. Ted Speliotis said it’s important for those who now live in apartments and condominiums on Hathorne Hill to remember those buried in the cemeteries and the history of the hospital. The 1997 legislation allowing for the state hospital property to pass into private use contains a requirement that “whoever shall maintain that property shall maintain those cemeteries,” he said.

“We also recognized today the three years of effort of volunteers all over the North Shore that ... looked at the records in the commissioner’s office to find these names that had been long lost for decades,” Speliotis said.

While some of the names of those buried under numbered markers are known, others are not. Memorial walls at both cemeteries have bronze plaques carrying the names of those buried in the cemeteries, but many of those names don’t correspond to a numbered marker. Others who are buried there have never been identified. 

“There are 770 graves between both sites,” said Don Preston of Beverly, president of the local Advisory Board. “The large cemetery has 677 people buried, with 542 identified and 354 have matching names to their number.

“The smaller cemetery has 93 numbered markers with 84 identified, but the names could not be matched with the numbers,” Preston said. 

The cemeteries, which were once neglected and overgrown, are now mowed and well-kept. 

Found by accident

The undignified way that patients were buried at the former hospital was brought to light in 1997, according to Preston, when Patricia Deegan stumbled upon the grave markers in the cemetery while out walking her dog. A Danvers State Memorial Committee, consisting of former patients and their allies, advocated with state mental health officials, leading to provisions to maintain the cemeteries.

A memorial service was first held on Sept. 25, 2002 by the Danvers State Memorial Committee, Preston said.

Thursday’s event, with wreaths placed at both cemeteries, was the second of what is intended to be an annual event. The first service took place last year.

“Today we come together for the second time to honor the people buried here,” Preston said, “acknowledge the hard work and commitment of the Danvers State Hospital Memorial Committee and be mindful of both how much as been learned from the legacy of those who have lived with mental illness and how much we have yet to learn.”

The cemeteries are not easy to find. 

The entrance to the main cemetery is located down a steep path on the southeast side of the former state hospital property, across the road from where luxury condominiums are being built. 

Construction of the State Lunatic Hospital at Danvers started in 1874. At its peak in the 1940s to 1960s, the hospital housed up to 2,000 people, even though it was built for 600. 

After it shut down in 1992, an apartment developer, AvalonBay, purchased the 77-acre property for $12 million and opened a sprawling apartment complex in 2007. The property has since been sold and is now called Halstead Danvers. The redevelopment preserved a portion of the hospital’s main and historic Kirkbride Building.

The second cemetery is located in Middleton, in an area once known as Middleton Colony, in a field across from a Department of Youth Services regional service center now under construction off Gregory Street. 

Mental health advocate Pat Lawrence of Lynnfield served on the board that sold the state hospital property, and worked to get additional money through the sale to create off-site housing for those living with mental illness.

“Even though there are no names on the pipes sticking out of the ground, there are still people there,” Lawrence said. They were courageous people, she said.

Her daughter has schizophrenia and has battled the disease for years, Lawrence said, though she now takes regular medication to control her condition. When her daughter was young, Lawrence said, she was told her daughter would wind up at Danvers State.

“Thank God the doors closed,” Lawrence said.

Staff writer Ethan Forman can be reached at 978-338-2673, by email at eforman@salemnews.com or on Twitter at @DanverSalemNews.

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