High school is a time of friends, drama, and academia – sometimes resembling those seen in TV shows. But it’s not often the case that you spend your high school years uncovering the history of nameless graves in your local town.
Students at Gann Academy, located in Waltham, have been doing just that in their 11th grade US History class, digging up the history behind MetFern cemetery. Led by Alex Green and Yoni Kadden, history teachers at Gann, the students sought to put names to those buried in MetFern and reveal how they lived and were treated during their time at the Fernald School. It was more than just another homework assignment, according to junior Bex Steinberg.
From 1947 to 1979, MetFern cemetery was where Metropolitan State Hospital and Walter E. Fernald Developmental Center buried 298 residents. Most of these residents had intellectual disabilities or mental illnesses, and were placed there due to the belief at the time that they would otherwise be a burden on their families. Fernald, the former superintendent of the institution that bears his name, said that those with intellectual disabilities or mental illnesses “cause unutterable sorrow at home and are a menace and danger to the community.” To Fernald, they were a disease to society, and should be institutionalized, away from the rest of the population.
Consequently, those residents who were buried at the cemetery were only commemorated with a diminutive concrete brick, labeled with C or P (for Catholics and Protestants, respectively) and a number to signify the order in which they were interred. With little other information to go off of, the students utilized city records, census data, and Ancestry.com to reconstruct the stories for the nameless. Their family information, if they had jobs, if they were veterans, if they were immigrants – and if so, what country did they emigrate from – were all unearthed to tell the stories of those who could not speak for themselves.
Despite the melancholy pretense, there have been stories of people reaching out to Green. Through Gann’s ongoing efforts to reconnect families with their abandoned relatives, the identities and stories of those left in unmarked graves are being brought back to the surface. The Arc of Massachusetts recently took part in a ceremony during which carnations were laid upon the nameless graves, commemorating the legacy of the lives that are finally receiving a bit of the dignity they deserve.
The Arc is now pushing for governmental action to prevent this from happening again. H2779 is an act advocating access to public records of the state secretary, created more than 75 years ago, so people like those interred at MetFern do not remain unheard.
Written by Johnstone Tcheou, Government Affairs Intern
Edited by Katerina Daley, Development and Digital Media Associate