About the MetFern Cemetery

In the summer of 1947, a young man named Ralph O’Connell and an elderly woman named Lillian Edick died within two days of each other. O’Connell was an inmate at the Fernald School, the nation’s oldest institution for people with developmental and intellectual disabilities. Edick was an inmate at the Metropolitan State Hospital, an asylum for people with mental illness. Both institutions were within a short distance of one another. In death, Edick and O’Connell became the first two inmates buried in the MetFern Cemetery, a burial ground in the woods of Waltham, Massachusetts where 296 people from these two institutions are interred today.

The stories of the people buried in the MetFern Cemetery are a story of America. They came from all over, lived lives, had families, worked jobs, and formed friendships. All of them ended up in one of these two institutions, and all of them were buried in this cemetery because they were the least fortunate among the thousands of inmates who passed through these places. They were immigrants without families, children who grew up and whose connections to their loved ones were lost, people whose families could afford no other option than a state burial, and victims of institutional abuse and murder. There is no one story exactly like another. To tell them all resists easy summary, but to tell each one is what we have tried to do here.

The people of the MetFern Cemetery — a name which is a combination of the two institution’s names — were buried between 1947 and 1979. Their bodies are segregated by religion in a place that was designed to accept only two faiths. There is a Catholic side and a Protestant side, yet there is a Muslim man buried here and there are Jews as well. As is customary in hundreds of similar cemeteries across the United States, the markers at each grave are simply a pin that told diggers where to dig next. They do not contain names, a practice that was likely done to save families from the oppressive social stigma that would have accompanied the incarceration of a loved one in a state institution. As a result, each stone was roughly carved with a C for Catholic or a P for Protestant, followed by a number.

Cemetery Stone

It is also likely that the people who created the cemetery never planned for it to grow so large. Located at the base of a hillside next to a marsh, open graves filled with water. Rocks were placed in coffins to sink them. Some graves were never used because the ground beneath them is ledge. These conditions led two individuals — Father Henry Marquardt and funeral director Wayne Brasco — to confront the two institutions in the 1970s, and begin to demand the closing of the cemetery.

Legal changes aided their efforts. As disability rights advocates worked to alter the status of institutional inmates to that of residents, Marquardt and Brasco were able to appeal to the Mayor of Waltham. They argued that as residents, the dead should be buried in the city’s cemetery, not MetFern. Their effort succeeded and MetFern was closed in 1979. In subsequent decades, the institutions were closed as well. Metropolitan State was shuttered in 1992. The Fernald School closed its doors in 2014.

Through all this time, disabled people kept the memory of those who are buried here alive. They hold annual ceremonies to read the names. They place flowers at the graves. But for many, this place is unknown, in large part because there are no names. Without them, there are no stories to tell. But over the years, a few advocates obtained and held onto copies of the cemetery register, which contained the list of names. They did not disclose it, because it was believed that sharing the names would be a violation of state protections for patient rights. In recent years, disabled advocates working in Danvers, Mass. proved instead that these records can be public. They are considered vital records, not medical records.

Picture of the Cemetery

In 2018, Gann Academy teacher Alex Green was given the names of those who are buried in the MetFern Cemetery. Green, Yoni Kadden and Kevin Levin, alongside 45 students, have spent two years poring over thousands of records, lobbying for the creation of signs, writing a memorial book, meeting with former inmates of the institutions, and building this website to tell the story of the people here and honor their lives. You can learn more about our projects here.

Our purpose is not to tell a story that sits outside the American narrative. The story of this cemetery is not unique. This is a story of us — many of whom have disabilities — and it is a story that has thousands like it. Unmarked institutional cemeteries are everywhere across the United States. It is a story that continues to this day, when we see images of bulldozers digging deep troughs for mass graves on Hart’s Island in New York City. It is a story that needs to be told.

As you read, please do so with the same spirit of kindness and communal reckoning that brought us to this work. Invariably, there will be mistakes in this work, and as you read, it will be tempting to seek blame for something so heart-wrenching and sad. If there is one unquestionable fact, it is that our nation’s dedication to institutions has been a failure, and that comes through in the hundreds of biographies here. But it is important to remember that we are able to tell this story because many came together—from large organizations like the Ruderman Family Foundation, to companies like Ancestry.com, to individuals who shared deeply personal details — in order to engage in Tikkun Olam, repairing the world.

Gann Academy is a Jewish high school and, as Jews, these words, from a Jewish sage, have guided our work:

“We bury non-Jewish dead and comfort their mourners so that we follow the ways of peace.”

You can read more about our process here and read more about our project work here.

—Alex Green, Gann Academy, June 2020