The MetFern Cemetery

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This website was created as an outlet for people to get to know more about the MetFern Cemetery and learn more about its history. I, the creator, care about giving respect to the people in the cemetery by rehabilitating and taking care of it. By creating this website, I hope to spread the word about the MetFern Cemetery and, in the future, possibly be able to erect a marker with the names of the people in the cemetery.

— Hodaya Propp —


The Story of the MetFern Cemetery

Gravestones in the MetFern Cemetery

Sometime around 1971, Wayne Brasco remembers driving down a dirt road into the woods near the Metropolitan State Hospital, a mental hospital nine miles west of Boston, in Waltham, Massachusetts. A young funeral director, he had taken a contract to bury the hospital’s dead, along with those from the Walter E. Fernald State School, a nearby institution for people with intellectual disabilities. Lying in a cheap casket in the back of the hearse was the body of his first charge.

Brasco parked near an open field a quarter mile down the path and walked out to meet the superintendent of grounds, standing near two planks set across an open grave. Around them, concrete block headstones were laid out in rows, marking the ground so that old graves wouldn’t accidentally be opened later when new ones were dug.

No names appeared on the stones. Instead, each was marked with a letter and a number. Capital C stood for Catholic, P for Protestant, each with their own side of the burying ground. The number indicated the order in which a deceased person came to be one of the 310 people buried at the MetFern Cemetery between 1947 and 1979.

Brasco looked into the grave. Six feet deep, it was filled with five feet of water.

He turned to the groundskeeper and asked what he was supposed to do with the casket in his hearse. Sitting in his funeral home forty-six years later, Brasco remembers the reply as clearly as the moment he first heard it.

“He told me — like I was a young paper boy who hadn’t been around, hadn’t taken enough hits — he said, ‘See those rocks over there. You put the box in. We sink it with the rocks.’”

Brasco refused.

“When I put that body on top of that grave,” he told the groundskeeper, “it’s gonna be dry. If it fills up tonight, I can’t help that. That’s God’s work. But I have a personal responsibility to see that this is done with some dignity.” He got back in his hearse, took the body, and drove away.

The Fernald and Met State — as they are often called — are no longer in operation. But during the thirty-two years when it served them, the MetFern Cemetery was the only gravesite available for patients in their care who could not afford to pay for a funeral themselves.

Today, it lies largely forgotten along the same dirt path, surrounded by land managed by the state’s Department of Conservation and Recreation. A small shrine sits at its center with a looming sugar maple nearby. The gravestones are sunken, tipped, and scattered. Some have disappeared into the soft earth. A low stone wall surrounds the plots, and a simple wooden sign marks the spot.

Even today, the names of the people who lie here are nowhere to be found.


The First and Last Institutions

The MetFern Cemetery

In the early 19th century, Massachusetts led the nation in developing facilities to care for people with disability and mental illness. Among those institutions was the Massachusetts School for Idiotic and Feeble-minded Youth, a small, state-supported experimental school created in 1848 in South Boston by noted reformer Samuel Gridley Howe. Howe believed that children and young adults with intellectual disabilities could learn if given the opportunity, and should be taught instead of being neglected. His school was the first public institution of its kind in the Americas.

With success, the school grew, and though Howe resisted the notion that it should ever become a large institution providing permanent care, the stewards who followed him did not share that belief. Under the leadership of Superintendent Walter E. Fernald, the school moved to a sprawling campus in Waltham in 1888.

An evangelist for his work, Fernald radically increased the population of the school and began keeping pupils as inmates — many of whom were from poor, immigrant families — for life. Soon, other state institutions grew up around the school’s model, and by the time of Fernald’s death in 1924, a network of state schools housed thousands of people. Many were not disabled. Most lived out the rest of their days within the walls of institutions.

The McLaughlin Administration Building
The McLaughlin Administration Building at the Metropolitan State Hospital is the hospital’s last standing unmodified structure.

In 1930, the last of these large state facilities was built down the road from the Fernald. The Metropolitan State Hospital was constructed for the custodial care of people with severe mental illness. Within a year of opening, there were 1150 inmates. By World War II, both institutions were well above capacity, each with approximately 2000 inmates.

Prior to 1947 it is unclear where deceased inmates of these institutions were buried. Some records suggest that bodies were returned to the town where a deceased individual came from. Others that they were sold to medical schools for experimentation. Still others suggest that as early as the 1890s, the Mt. Feake Cemetery in Waltham may have been used from time to time.

Whatever the answer, in 1947, the MetFern Cemetery was opened, a short drive down a carriage path from the Met State’s pathology laboratory.

The site was selected at the foot of a steep ledge, above a low-lying marsh that becomes a small lake in springtime. For the next three decades, the MetFern Cemetery became the resting place for the poor and unclaimed dead from the Fernald and Met State institutions.


A Choir of Two

After driving off with the body in his hearse, Wayne Brasco received a call from the superintendent of Met State. He explained what he had done. “I refuse to bury the body under their terms — the groundskeepers,” Brasco told the superintendent. Things would have to change.

“If they didn’t pump out the grave and they just ignored my request,” Brasco told the superintendent, “I would return with the Boston Herald and the Boston Globe to take some pictures.” Instead, he got his way, but even today Brasco remembers the threats of the groundkeepers following the incident, warning him not to step too close to an open grave, lest someone push him in.

The standoff would have continued, he believes, if not for the arrival of a new priest at the Fernald in 1973. Standing alongside one another at the cemetery as a casket was lowered into the grave, Father Henry Marquardt turned to Brasco and said, “This is unacceptable.”

Brasco replied, “Join my choir. Because [right now] it’s a choir of one.”

In the years that followed, Marquardt instituted a series of reforms that placed him squarely at the heart of a budding advocacy movement that was shedding light on the poor conditions of the Fernald and other state institutions. Patients lived in squalid, overcrowded buildings, often subjected to abuse, cruelty, and neglect. Only a decade before, doctors at the Fernald had experimented on children, testing radioactive milk on them in partnership with MIT, Quaker Oats, and others.

Marquardt formed a series of oversight groups, including a Death and Dying Committee, which drew parents, staff, and professionals together — including Brasco — to provide dignified end-of-life care and funeral services for patients. The committee arranged funds for funerals, and coordinated the services.

For many patients without relatives, Brasco remembers, staff members were the closest thing to family. Many were early and eager advocates for his work. When one patient died, he recalls, “I had [staff] ask me, ‘Mr. Brasco, if we chipped in and bought a dress, could we have a wake and everything?’”

With their support, Marquardt sought to create inclusive religious services. He renamed the Catholic chapel on campus the Chapel of the Holy Innocents, as a way of signaling that he welcomed people of all faiths. For the first time, the doors were open for his Protestant and Jewish counterparts to conduct services.

A Small Shrine
A small shrine sits between the Protestant and Catholic halves of the MetFern Cemetery.

Many funerals were conducted by all three chaplains, says Rich Robison, former Protestant Chaplain at the Fernald, because the patient’s religion was not known. “[Marquardt] was the person who led most of the movement towards dying with dignity in the institution,” says Robison. “He was very generous about ecumenical relationships and the use of the chapel.”

Robison presided at approximately a dozen funerals at the chapel with Marquardt. “Even though it was consecrated as a Roman Catholic chapel, and it had all the appropriate imagery of a Catholic chapel, we were invited to share services there, to participate in services together with him.”

While Marquardt worked to reform the inner workings of the institution, Brasco began to find ways to stop using the cemetery altogether. In one instance, he remembers asking the distraught mother of a deceased boy from the Fernald if there was anywhere else that her family members were buried. When she named a cemetery in Fall River where her parents had been buried, Brasco helped ensure that her son was interred with them, instead of at MetFern.


As Goes MetFern, So Go the Institutions

The patients’ rights movements of the 1960s and 70s resulted in all manner of reforms at state institutions, and some helped Marquardt, Brasco, and others to shut the MetFern Cemetery down altogether. The changes came slowly at first. Instead of the anonymous concrete headstones, a handful of families were able to place stones at MetFern with the names of their deceased relatives.

Around the same time, reforms began allowing social security to go directly to patients and their families, so that they could save for end-of-life care. People with little or no money could start to save to be buried elsewhere.

Most importantly, a shift in language allowed Brasco and Marquardt to find another cemetery. When the state reclassified inmates and patients of institutions as residents for the first time, Brasco asked for a meeting with Waltham Mayor Arthur Clark.

Because the city’s Mt. Feake Cemetery is intended for all residents, Brasco urged Clark to allow for Fernald and Met State’s newly-named residents to be buried there. It worked.

“I was able to convince Mayor Clark that it was, in fact, for the residents at 200 Trapelo Road and across the street,” says Brasco, “So they left the role of patient, and became … residents.”

It took a number of years for Brasco and Marquardt to find ways to pay for the plots, but in the interim, Brasco says, he often saw Marquardt do what he had done for years, writing checks to people to pay for burials out of his own pocket. By 1979, the MetFern Cemetery ceased operation.

In January 1992, the Metropolitan State Hospital followed suit. It closed less than a month after Marquardt collapsed at the Fernald, dying of a heart attack at the age of 60.

He was, “a living saint,” says Brasco.

Until a new priest could be appointed, Rich Robison stepped into Marquardt’s shoes. During his time at the Fernald, Robison worked with Superintendent Peter O’Meara to devise a plan for cleaning up the cemetery. They looked to a similar movement underway at the Belchertown State Hospital Cemetery, envisioning a memorial marker, and re-set stones.

But Robison and O’Meara left before they could put their plans in place, and in the subsequent two decades, those plans were lost as the Fernald slowly shut down, like the Met State before it. By the time the Fernald closed in 2014, the cemetery had been transferred to stewardship of the state’s Department of Conservation and Recreation.

Carnations Placed By Volunteers
Carnations placed by volunteers mark gravesites where stones have sunk into the earth.

Volunteers from the Arc of Massachusetts, often led by O’Meara, still maintain the cemetery as best they can. At a recent “Remember and Restore” cleanup they laid carnations at every gravesite, even where stones can no longer be seen.

A 2014 resolution put forward by Waltham City Councilors George Darcy, Kathleen McMenimen, and John McLaughlin encouraged the rehabilitation of the cemetery and the placement of a memorial, but the proposals ultimately require action by the departments of Conservation and Recreation, Mental Health, and Developmental Services.

Until then, unlike many of the state’s other institutional cemeteries, no marker identifies the people buried there or ensures the long-term maintenance of the cemetery.

Brasco believes some steps should be taken to place a historic marker naming the people buried at the MetFern Cemetery, and support for helping maintain their resting place over time. “I believe in dignity and dignity belongs to the rich and the poor no matter what your background is. There should be a place that says when you came and when you left.”

— Alex Green and Ashlynn Rickord —