May 10 (UPI) -- Up to 7,000 bodies are buried on the grounds of a Jackson, Miss., medical center, college officials said.
The site, an undeveloped 10-acre parcel on the grounds of the University of Mississippi Medical Center, was once the Mississippi State Lunatic Asylum. From 1855 until its closure in 1935, the asylum housed about 35,000 patients institutionalized for depression, schizophrenia or other mental illnesses. When they died, they were buried on the grounds.
Underground radar studies indicate up to 7,000 coffins now lie beneath the medical campus, and exhuming and reburying all of them for planned construction on the site could cost up to $3,000 per coffin, or $21 million total.
The medical center is studying a cheaper alternative, an in-house exhumation project which would include a memorial to the patients, preservation of the remains, a visitors' center and a laboratory to study the remains. The $4 million proposal calls for historical research that would offer insights into life at the asylum and methods of dealing with institutionalized patients.
"It would be a unique resource for Mississippi," said Molly Zuckerman of Mississippi State University's Department of Anthropology and Middle Eastern Cultures. "It would make Mississippi a national center on historical records relating to health in the pre-modern period, particularly those being institutionalized. No other place has done this. Lots of other insane asylums' cemeteries have been found and re-buried. The problem is made to go away, and the coffins are removed by funeral homes and buried elsewhere. But nothing is gained by that act. We don't get any scientific information."
Hand-drawn maps from the 19th century made it clear that coffins existed at the site, built largely through the efforts of Dorothea Dix, a noted social reformer of the era. The first coffin was discovered in 2012 when a parking garage was installed at the campus.
"We have inherited these patients. We want to show them care and respectful management," said Dr. Ralph Didlake of the UMMC Center for Bioethics and Humanities.
A consortium has been established to seek grants and donations for the project