California Memorial Project

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The California Memorial Project Description

California Memorial Project
written by Lori Shephard

The California Memorial Project is a collaborative effort between the Peer/Self-Advocacy Unit at Protection & Advocacy, Inc., the California Network of Mental Health Clients, and Capital People First and other local people first chapters. People with developmental and mental disabilities share a common history at state institutions. Our movements share many common issues, principles, and beliefs. This is an opportunity to reclaim our history at state institutions in California. It is critical that people who have lived in state institutions lead the way to bring honor and dignity to those who have died in a state hospital. It is their voices and experiences that should guide this project.

We need to remember and honor the thousands of people, who have lived, who are still living, and those who died in state institutions.

To do this, we have divided the project into three parts:

  1. Restoring the cemeteries at the state institutions,
  2. Recording the stories of people who lived in the state institutions by decade, and
  3. Documenting the history of the consumer/survivor movement in California.

We have divided the state into 5 geographic regions to work on the state institutions in those regions. We have workgroups of people with mental and developmental disabilities to do research on their respective institutions and the cemeteries, collect stories from people who lived in the institutions, and develop a plan for restoring these cemeteries. These workgroups are staffed by Peer/Self-Advocacy Coordinators from PAI.


Since the first institution opened in 1853, people were committed to state institutions for a variety of reasons that would be unacceptable today. Up until the 1950's approximately 10% of the hospital population died each year. For a variety of reasons, people were abandoned by their families: shame, stigma of disabilities, family hardships, time etc. As a result people were buried at the hospital grounds in unmarked cemeteries. Over time these cemeteries have fallen into total disrepair, neglected, and have been used for other purposes: land sold for condominums, pasture for cattle grazing, hog farms, etc.

Each workgroup is researching what life was like at the local institutions from the patients' view point. This will guide us as we develop plans for restoring the cemeteries in ways that truly reflect the lives of those buried there.

Unfortunately, when state institutions closed, people were exhumed and moved to county cemeteries in unmarked graves. Many times people were placed in unmarked community graves. Part of the research involves locating were people were moved.

We want to not only restore and properly memorialize the cemeteries still on state hospital and developmental center lands, and those gravesites of people in county cemeteries, who died in institutions. Everyone deserves to have a marker with their first and last name, date of birth, date of death.

We need to change the current burial practice at state hospital or developmental center for people who are indigent and unclaimed by family members. Currently people are either cremated and placed in unmarked community graves at local pauper's fields, or at Napa buried in the pauper's field with only a numbered marker.


It is critical that our voices be heard about what it was like to live in a state institution from our perspective. Most of what is written about state institutions is from the facilities or staff, family members', and society's perspective; but there are few first hand experiences from those who were patients. We will be collecting stories of those who lived in the state institutions. We need to get these very important stories down on paper from people who lived in the state institutions over the past decades before those stories are lost forever.


Thirty years ago people left these institutions in large numbers. When they returned to the community, they came together to form advocacy groups in the civil rights movement by and for people with developmental and psychiatric disabilities. This was the birth self-advocacy and self-help groups in California. The history of the California consumer/survivor movement should be recorded by us and preserved in a place where generations of disability activists may visit and understand their roots.

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