MIDDLETOWN, Conn. (AP) — Most of Mary Krakauskas’ family barely knew what happened to her after she entered Connecticut Valley Hospital in 1921.
Krakauskas, who was born in Lithuania in 1882 and came to the United States in 1903, is the great-grandmother of Ron Krom, director of St. Vincent de Paul’s soup kitchen.
Krakauskas died at age 66 on May 16, 1948, after having been at state-run hospital for people with mental illness and addictions for almost three decades and because records were lost, descendants may never know why she was there in the first place.
“My father came as a child to CVH, but he remembers sitting in the car because it was taboo to go inside,” Krom said.
At the time of Krakauskas’ death, mental illness was something families hid behind closed doors and felt was shameful. From 1878 to 1955, patients who died at CVH were placed in nameless, numbered graves at a cemetery on Silvermine Road — gone without a trace.
Margie Haught, Krom’s cousin, had no idea she even had a grandmother since none of her family ever spoke of it.
“I just found out she was here in April,” Haught said. “I was very unaware I had a grandmother. Nothing was ever mentioned. It was just silent.”
So in May, Krakauskas’ name was read along with 100 others in the annual CVH memorial service for those buried in nameless graves. In total, 1,686 plots lay silent with only numbers to tell them apart.
In this 16th year of the project, names of those who died from January 1946 to April 1950 were read aloud, along with a blessing made and white carnation placed at their newly repaired headstone.
“Today we remember that the people buried here had their own stories,” Krom said. “It’s sad knowing that many people lived in this hospital with little to no connection to their families.”
Helene Vartelas, chief executive officer of CVH, said the annual reading of the names is just part of the effort to remove the stigma surrounding mental illness.
“It’s the representation of the stigma,” Vartelas said of the nameless graves. “It shows the effect on peoples’ lives.”
One man buried in these nameless graves had worked with lead paint and after an extended exposure to the toxic chemical displayed symptoms thought to be mental illness, Vartelas said. He was brought to CVH where he eventually died. His family had no idea where he had gone.
“When you are admitted to a state mental hospital, you are immediately cut down to the lowest level,” said patient Donald Pascale. “All of a sudden, all your life accomplishments don’t count for anything and you have to start at ground zero. Being buried in a nameless grave is the ultimate dehumanization. I’m honored to be part of this movement to restore dignity to my brothers and sisters buried here.”
When the project began in 1998, the hospital had gotten permission from the Attorney General’s office to release the names after finding them in libraries and old buildings on the grounds.
Since then, 1,600 of the 1,686 names have been read out and each crumbling headstone replaced. Next year marks the last year of the names being read, however Vartelas said they would be looking into starting an annual service for all the names as a group.