To Honor The Lives Of Former Patients, Brattleboro Retreat Reclaims Historic Cemetery

May 16, 2016

The Brattleboro Retreat has reclaimed a historic cemetery that was a burial place for patients who died while being treated at the psychiatric hospital.

The Brattleboro Retreat opened in 1834, and for a long time the cemetery went uncared for.

The Brattleboro Retreat cemetery is across the street from the hospital, up a steep hill and hidden away somewhat in the forest.

The last person who was buried here died in 1901.

Many of the tombstones don't have a birth date.

Some of the stones only have a first name, and there isn't a lot known about the former patients.

Kurt White, the retreat's director of ambulatory care, says records do not say very much about the people who were buried in the cemetery.

"We do know that because of mental illness their lives came to an end here. And in many cases after a long time spent here," White says. "For many of these people the retreat was home, in life and now here also after. And there's a sadness in this."

It's believed that more than 650 people were laid to rest here during the last half of the 1800s.

Some of the gravestones in the cemetery only have the first name of the deceased, highlighting the anonymity of the mentally ill who were treated at the hospital in the 1800s.
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR

"As the heirs of those who cared for them in life, I'm very glad that we're looking to care for them also in death," says White. "To lend their lives and memories some peace, dignity and respect."

Through the years many of the remains were removed to nearby town-owned cemeteries, and no one knows who's still buried here. There are 34 headstones remaining.

Brenda Nichols works at the Brattleboro Retreat and coordinated the efforts to reclaim the cemetery.

"For many of these people the retreat was home, in life and now here also after. And there's a sadness in this." — Kurt White, Brattleboro Retreat

Nichols says it's important to honor the lives of these former patients, many of whom died alone while struggling with mental illness, and sometimes far away from their families.

"This is part of our history," she says. "It's the history of every person who has crossed our gate to get help and treatment. They're still important, after all this time."

As part of the project the headstones were repaired and the granite posts that border the cemetery were repositioned.

A new granite marker has also been installed at the entrance.

This story was originally published with the headline: They Died Alone, But Are Now Remembered: Brattleboro Retreat Reclaims Cemetery