Being mentally ill doomed them to unmarked graves on the grounds of a Nebraska state psychiatric institution for up to 120 years. But now nearly a thousand people will at last gain a grain of dignity long after their deaths.
On Friday, the Nebraska Supreme Court ordered the state to reveal the names of 957 patients who were buried in the cemetery of the Hastings Regional Center between 1889 and 1957 in graves identified only with patient numbers. This ruling will allow families to discover at long last -- easily, sans expensive legal battles -- whether or not their relatives are among the dead. Friday's unanimous supreme-court ruling reverses last year's decision by an Adams County district judge that federal medical-privacy laws prohibited the hospital from releasing the names of the dead. Previous requests were rejected by the Attorney General's Office and the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services.
Attorney Thomas Burke, who handled the appeals pro bono, told the Omaha World-Herald: "I was really disturbed by the idea that even after these people had died, the state had basically rubbed out their memories.... A century of secrets has been overturned by the Nebraska Supreme Court."
In 1887, state legislature secured the funds to erect a "state asylum for the incurably insane" to be located at Hastings. Its original name was "Hospital for the Incurably Insane." (It acquired its current name, Hastings Regional Center, in 1971.) Occupying a property that expanded to 630 acres, the hospital admitted patients in its first few decades "for reasons that today would seem outrageous," reads an Adams County Historical Society report which cites such "reasons" as domestic trouble, disappointment in love, "hepatic dullness," masturbation, intemperance, overwork, overstudy, religious excitement and sunstroke.
Lest we forget....