New York, USA
In memory of Stephen Brooker
(Name inscribed on memorial)
Memorial honors nameless residents
For the hundreds of people buried at the Old Letchworth Village Cemetery, their deaths were much like their lives: anonymous, obscure and humble.
Many of their graves simply have small T-shaped metal markers with numbers printed on them, a legacy of a time not so long ago when families were ashamed of relatives with developmental disabilities or when they were told to forget about them.
But a memorial erected at the cemetery in August and a new state law that would allow loved ones to replace the grave markers with proper headstones are attempting to atone for the past.
"Why is a person remembered as a number, and not as a person?" was a question that Jacqueline Ferrara often asked herself last year as she sought to find out the names of the 910 men, women and children buried at the cemetery, off of Call Hollow Road in Thiells.
"Those Who Shall Not Be Forgotten" is written on a bronze plaque affixed to the large granite memorial. The names are listed in neat rows in the order they died.
At the top of the monument are the names of six Letchworth residents buried on Cheesecote Mountain in Haverstraw from 1914 to 1917.
Officials don't know exactly where the people are buried - there are no T-shaped markers to guide them - but have a general idea. The Call Hallow graveyard was first used in December 1917 until 1967, when a cemetery on Thiells-Mount Ivy Road in Pomona was opened.
Ferrara, the ombudsman for the Hudson Valley Developmental Disabilities Services Office, last year spent several months cross-referencing client files and death certificates, and matching grave sites with names. She went through the records three times to make sure she had the names spelled right and dates correct.
"I feel like I know all these people," Ferrara said at the cemetery recently. "I feel they're family."
Silvio Cosareto was the first person to be buried at the Old Letchworth Village Cemetery, and Stephen Brooker, the last, was number 910. In between are former residents, most with full names, others with incomplete ones. There is Baby Bob Wendt, Baby Girl Doll, Father Smith and Mr. Easton.
In a few cases, there are people who share names or have a number added to the end of theirs, such as Dorothy Smith No. 3 and Robert Johnson No. 4. There are even a few Letchworth employees and their children buried there.
Janet and Carl DeStefano, who live in Florida, have visited the cemetery twice since late August.
Carl DeStefano's younger brother, Kenneth, who died at age 7, is buried there, one of the few dozen people who has a headstone with their name written on it. The married couple last visited the cemetery in 1968, but DeStefano said he had a dream about his brother last November, wondering why his mother placed him at Letchworth when he was 5. He died two years later of pneumonia.
Carl DeStefano, 66 and two years older than Kenneth, is trying to get his brother's file to understand why he was placed at Letchworth. He takes solace that his family marked Kenneth's grave with a headstone. The monument also brings some dignity to the nameless others, he said.
"It seems all these years later, somebody is being interested in it, with the monument and all that," Carl DeStefano said recently.
Janet DeStefano, 66, said she gets "brokenhearted" when she looks around at the numbered markers.
"I just feel bad for all of those people buried there," Janet DeStefano said. "Who knows if the family even knows about them?"
People with developmental disabilities and mental illness, orphans, the homeless and those deemed unmanageable were sent to Letchworth during most of the 20th century, said John Murphy, president of Camp Venture, which serves people with disabilities.
"People would literally drop folks off on the ground and leave," said Murphy, a county legislator. "This was a time back in those days when these conditions were something people were afraid of and the public was frightened by."
Letchworth was created in 1911 to serve as a self-sufficient community where people with special needs could eventually rejoin society through education, work and medical care.
First known as "The Newest State Institution for the Feeble-Minded and Epileptic," the 2,000-acre site was selected because of its close proximity to New York City medical facilities.
Jan Wheeler worked as Letchworth's associate director from 1984 to 1989 when it still had 1,500 people living there. She said societal norms were different 70 years ago. There were no special education or day programs, or group homes where parents could keep their children. In fact, it was recommended they put their child in a state institution like Letchworth.
"Your alternative was to keep your child at home and do the best you could," Wheeler said recently. "A lot of families placed their folks there and forgot about them. That's what they were told to do. Go out and have other children and move on with your life."
Wheeler, who lives in Tappan, said using a numbered marker at the cemetery was a common practice. At a time when parents didn't even tell their family members that they had a child with a disability, the nameless marker was a way to protect their privacy. When someone died, the family was contacted. They always had the option of burying them with a headstone.
"At one time, people wanted to hide people away," she said. "This was just part of that hiding process."
What no one really anticipated was the overcrowding, she said.
Designed to house up to 2,500 people, Letchworth had more than 4,000 by World War II.
The reforms began in earnest in the 1960s and the state facilities were deinstitutionalized over the following three decades. The last people were moved out of Letchworth into group homes in 1996.
Since that time, former residents of the institutions have lobbied to draw attention to those who preceded them.
For example, three self-advocacy associations helped pay for the monument at the old Letchworth cemetery, along with the state Office of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities (OMRDD).
There are about 7,100 of these nameless graves around the state, state Sen. Thomas Morahan said.
Morahan, R-New City, introduced the legislation that allows OMRDD to release the names and dates of birth and death of any patients who lived at one of its facilities for the purpose of inscribing a headstone. The family is responsible for paying for the headstone.
"I just think we as a state have some responsibility because these people were in our care, many for their lifetimes," Morahan said.
The information can be released to cemetery associations and funeral homes, who are working with family members.
"The only catch would be if the person or the person's guardian has provided written instructions not to release their name," OMRDD spokeswoman Nicole Weinstein said.
The law is not perfect. Those who suspect loved ones may be buried in one of the graves may face several challenges and legal costs to get detailed information.
Morahan, who heads the state Senate Committee on Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities, said it was up to OMRDD to set up the process to make the information available to family members.
He said the law may need to be tweaked if it prevents some people from getting the information because of privacy regulations.
Ferrara, the ombudsman with OMRDD's regional office, said the state plans to hold a memorial dedication ceremony sometime next spring.
It won't make up for the past, she said, but it's a start.
"This is one of the most peaceful places," Ferrara said. "If there's one thing we did right, the site that was selected as their final resting place is really beautiful."
THE JOURNAL NEWS • OCTOBER 17, 2008
SPECIAL THANKS TO KHURRAM SAEED FOR REPORTING THIS STORY.
For genealogy purposes.
Letchworth Village Cemetery
New York, USA
Created by: New York Historian
Record added: Oct 24, 2008
Find A Grave Memorial# 30817411