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Olga Peters/The Commons

Rev. Susie Webster-Toleno gave the opening remarks.


Place of honor

With the rededication of its historic cemetery, Brattleboro Retreat remembers the forgotten patients who died at the hospital in the 1800s

BRATTLEBORO—Wind, rain, and neglect have stolen most of the names.

The Brattleboro Retreat’s former Asylum Cemetery rests to the side of one of the many trails once walked by patients to assist their therapy and healing.

There, circled by granite posts, stand the few remaining gravestones, worn nearly smooth where names, birth dates, and the dates of death once were visible.

In the cemetery used for the first 70 years or so of the psychiatric hospital’s history, those gravestones marked the few people whom loved ones wanted to remember. Many others, however, were forgotten shortly after they were buried.

Today, it is nearly impossible for the guests standing in the dappled light of a new spring forest to haul those lost identities from the earth or from the dusty records of the hospital.

On May 10, the Retreat rededicated its cemetery.

Guests walked quietly through the small graveyard before speakers stood on a tree stump that served as an impromptu podium.

In her opening remarks, Rev. Susie Webster-Toleno said that small acts, like that morning’s rededication, help people remember their common humanity.

“One of the most messed-up things in our world is the way society encourages us to behave as though some lives matter more than others — that the wealthy and powerful are more important than the marginal, those who struggle,” said Webster-Toleno, minister of the Congregational Church of Westminster West.

She continued, “It’s a lie, and today we are taking a moment to tell the truth: the lives of the vulnerable are as important as the lives of the powerful, and they must be remembered.

“Gathering as we do today, we remember that whatever else happened in their lives, they were once somebody’s baby.”

Peace, dignity, respect

Thanks to a $10,000 grant from the Ben and Jerry’s Foundation in honor of former Retreat trustee Julie Peterson, the small cemetery has undergone a revitalization, which culminated in the ceremony.

According to a press release from the Retreat, which Anna Hunt Marsh helped found in 1834 with a bequest of $10,000, the rehabilitation work included repositioning of granite posts lining the plot of land, headstone repairs, landscaping, erosion protection for some of the oldest stones, and framing some of the older stones with wood.

A new granite marker is engraved with a brief history of the cemetery and a poem written by Robert Frost.

At the rededication, people stooped and squinted at the worn lettering on the 34 headstones that remain on the small plot of land.

Kurt L. White, the Retreat’s director of ambulatory services, said that as a therapist, he often tries to use his “empathic imagination to try to understand — really understand — what it is like to be in another person’s life.”

“We can often be of some real help to people when we can understand the choices, pains, struggles, and joys that are unique to their experiences,” White said in his remarks. “After all, the problems that people experience can really only be understood when we know the full context in which they have lived their lives, in all its manifold richness.”

Time, however, has consumed the stories of those buried at the Retreat’s cemetery, White said.

“We do know that because of mental illness, their lives came to an end when they were here, in the care of a hospital and its staff, in many cases after a long time spent here,” White said. “For many of these individuals, the Retreat was ‘home’ in life, and now also after.”

White continued, “As the heirs of those who cared for them in life, I am very glad that we are looking to care for them in death, too, and to lend their lives and memories some peace, dignity, and respect.”

Time blurs the details

The Retreat’s records lack a clear accounting of the people buried in the clearing near Chase Street.

Those records indicate that the first person buried in the cemetery was Isaac Needham, who died April 4, 1839. Mary Laterio, who died April 19, 1901, is the last person recorded as being buried there.

The Retreat staff estimate 659 people were buried at the cemetery. According to the Retreat’s media office, in the late 1880s, a new state law required municipalities to provide indigent burials. It appears the hospital then moved most of the graves to Prospect Hill and Morningside cemeteries.

The hospital assumes over time that all the remains in the cemetery were removed, but it can’t be sure. And regardless, those 34 headstones have remained.

The restoration work included efforts from community members, former Retreat staff, and current staff.

Daniel Tardie at Abbiati Monuments assisted in stone restoration and supplied a few new stones. John Sohl and Brad Emich led the current facilities staff in work at the site.

The Retreat also thanked former Retreat Director of Facilities Kevin Duby, who provided stewardship of the property. Duby assisted a local Boy Scout in researching the records and names of those buried in the cemetery. One gentleman stood out: his former occupation was listed as “a pirate.”

But all of this work came about as the result of the efforts of Brenda Nichols, who spurred The Retreat to fix up its forgotten burial ground.

Respecting the past

Nichols’ title is executive coordinator at the Retreat, but she has taken on a role as the hospital’s in-house historian.

When asked why, Nichols said because her job allows her to “dig around in the nooks and crannies” of the Retreat’s archives.

Despite its long history, the Retreat and the work it does is a mystery to many in Brattleboro, she said.

Nichols said that statement held true for her. As a child growing up a few streets away from the Retreat Trails, she played in the woods with her peers. She never actually understood what the Retreat did until she started working there.

She would love to see the Retreat open a museum and preserve its archives for future generations.

Despite how much the treatment of those with mental health issues has changed since 1834, “Every person who crosses our gate is brave,” Nichols said.

She believes that caring for the cemetery is one way to honor those who came seeking help.

“The past should never be forgotten,” Nichols said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #357 (Wednesday, May 18, 2016). This story appeared on page A1.

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