LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
A Massachusetts historian has been working for years to solve a 60-year-old mystery. Who is buried in the MetFern Cemetery? That's the resting place of nearly 300 residents from two now-shuttered institutions for people with mental and physical disabilities. WBUR's Eve Zuckoff tells us their identities could have been lost forever if not for one man's commitment and a partnership with local high schoolers.
YONI KADDEN: I'll introduce you to one person right now.
EVE ZUCKOFF, BYLINE: This is Yoni Kadden, a teacher at Gann Academy in Waltham, Mass. We've just walked about 15 minutes off a main road into the woods, into a clearing the size of a football field. Kadden is looking for someone we can easily miss.
KADDEN: That looks like C1.
ZUKOFF: That's it.
KADDEN: Ralph O'Connell.
ZUKOFF: There are others, too - C12, C18, C21, on the other side P8, P13, P7. These are grave markers the size of cinder blocks, C for catholic, P for protestant and a number for the order in which they were buried.
KADDEN: Yeah, and none of them were given the dignity of even a name, let alone a birthday or a death date.
ZUKOFF: This is the MetFern Cemetery. Here lie nearly 300 children and adults who died in the Fernald School and Metropolitan State Hospital, two institutions that house people with mental and physical disabilities. To learn about the cemetery and the lives of the people buried here, Kadden and Gann's history department linked up with Alex Green, a historian and fellow at Harvard Law School. He's been studying the MetFern for four years.
ALEX GREEN: Why and how this happened, we don't know. It's our job to try to know. We may never know.
ZUKOFF: But at least one important part of this mystery began to unravel in June, 2018. Green was able to stitch together the names of every person buried at the MetFern, thanks to two people. One was a former employee of one of the institutions who kept old lists of names. The other was an amateur historian who painstakingly collected vital records from town halls around the state. But Green wanted to know more than just their names.
So he created a course at Gann Academy called Disability History - the curriculum, to tell the stories of these forgotten people. Sixteen-year-old Bex Steinberg, a junior, says it's more than a homework assignment.
BEX STEINBERG: This is right here in our backyard. And there's this whole, like, little world that we had no idea about.
ZUKOFF: Now Bex and the class are building profiles of each person. Some details are tragic. There's 66-year-old Claude Moran, who died soon after he was burned in a shower, and 8-year-old George Oros (ph), who fell out of his wheelchair and fractured his skull.
GREEN: It's a lot of injustice to look straight on in the face, right? It's overwhelming.
ZUKOFF: All around the country, other cemeteries connected to now-defunct institutions exist, with thousands buried in nameless graves. But for Green, it's the history of the institutions and their intense contradictions that have haunted him.
GREEN: The Fernald School was, at times, the first and greatest place for anyone with certain kinds of disability to get any help and, at other times, one of the most monstrous places in our history and, at many points, both of those things at once.
ZUKOFF: A spokesperson for the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health called the unmarked graves in the cemetery a tragedy and said the state is working to identify and mark graves of individuals buried anonymously at former state hospitals. Alex Green says his work won't stop until he's produced profiles of all 298 people buried in the MetFern Cemetery. For NPR News, I'm Eve Zuckoff in Boston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.