OUTSIDE MILWAUKEE, WI -- A proposed expansion of a local hospital will make more room for the living, and better prospects for keeping them alive and in the best health possible.
But it will leave much less room for the dead.
Froedtert Hospital's plans for a new 480,000-square-foot building to house expanded surgical, inpatient and outpatient care is proposed to stand atop what is now a cemetery containing the remains of at least 1,300 people.
They were the poor and indigent of Milwaukee County, who died in its care at the public hospital and the almshouse and were buried on the grounds, dating back well over a century before the practice was halted in 1974.
Froedtert’s plan calls for digging up their remains, but not for reinterring them in cemeteries. Instead, they would be turned over to the Anthropology Department of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee for study.
To Michael McBride, that is an indignity.
A repeat of an earlier episode
McBride has been an advocate for reburial of the county’s poor since another unmarked cemetery was unearthed in 1991 in an earlier Froedtert expansion, with the same result — the remains were boxed up rather than reinterred, and to this day they reside at UWM.
McBride, a child psychiatrist and former high school teacher, fought it then, and concerned that it will happen again, quietly and without ceremony, he’s speaking out.
“I really see a connection to these remains, both as a citizen of this community and also as a psychiatrist who has worked in the public sector,” said McBride, a Wauwatosa citizen. “Our patients are oftentimes the poor, and it’s just because the laws have changed, that we don’t have a paupers’ cemetery anymore.
“But this is what we did at one time in our community, and I think about my patients and my family, and this wouldn’t be acceptable. And I think that if the community connected to these remains, it would step forward and say, ‘No. This isn’t just a scientific collection. These are remains of human beings that are part of this community, and we need to protect their dignity.'”
Not against disinterment, only disposition of remains
McBride is not opposed to the hospital’s expansion, by any means. In fact, he does not even oppose the siting of the new building or Froedtert’s need to remove the remains. He opposes only their disposition, as objects for study rather than the same reverence people show to the dead of today.
“Froedtert has done such good work here in the community for years and years,” McBride said, “and there are times in life when the needs of the living supersede those of the dead. We have to make arrangements.
“But I think, with that in mind, we still have to respect and care for the remains of the dead, regardless of who they are — maybe more so because they were poor. How you treat the poor, and how you treat the dead, these are common measures of the quality of a civilization, of the virtues of a society.”
Froedtert, for its part, has little to say about the question. It has filed a “Request to Disturb Catalogued Burial Site” with the Wisconsin State Historical Society, asking that it be allowed to disinter the bones and any grave artifacts as necessary for its expansion.
“It will be the state’s decision,” said media relations director Kathy Seija. “We’ve filed everything that’s required, and they will have the approval. We’ll move forward with the state’s decision.
“It’s our intention to be respectful of the state’s authority as well as showing proper dignity to the remains,” Seija said.
The hospital’s request to the Historical Society, however, does specifically request a transfer of the remains to UWM and does not mention reburial as an option the state might consider.
“Froedtert Health proposes that the remains and associated objects be curated by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee consistent with the disposition of the remains unearthed in 1991-’92,” the document says.
It even states that Froedtert has already communicated with Patricia Richards, the UWM anthropologist who directed the earlier excavation of graves and is now in charge of the collection. It mentions her interest in assisting again with removal and receiving disposition of these remains.
Richards did not reply to phone and e-mail requests for an interview.
What is to be learned from these remains?
According to county records, at least 7,500 people died and were buried on the County Grounds from 1852 to 1974. Most lived and died as indigents in the middle of the period of mass immigration, roughly from the late 1800s through the 1930s.
The largest burial ground, the "Potter's Field" of about four acres, north of the Wisconsin Athletic Club, holds about 4,000 remains — and McBride said it could accommodate more.
For him, the affront to the dead this time is yet more stinging than in 1991, on several counts. For one thing, he does not see that much has been done with or learned from the 1,600 remains that were unearthed then.
“They are in boxes, on shelves, in the Anthropology Department,” he said. “I know of no particular scientific revelations that have come from having them. Yet the university sort of celebrates having the largest collection of this demographic group in the nation. It’s almost like an advertisement.
“This demographic,” he repeats. “These are not prehistoric people. These are not remnants of some ancient civilization. These are our own near relatives. Most of them were immigrants, and who of us doesn’t come from immigrant stock? Who didn’t have an ancestor who fell on hard times?”
Grave sites long-known but unmarked
Also, he says, Froedtert has done nothing in 21 years to show even recognition, much less respect, for the burials that remain on its grounds.
Certainly, the cemetery, such as it is, appears to be about the least remarkable tract anywhere on the otherwise park-like hospital grounds. It lies on a hillside below a parking lot and between two buildings on the south side of the campus. The lower end of the burial ground is already paved over by a stretch of Doyne Avenue.
From 1,300 to 1,500 bodies lie under a thin but coarse turf, and there are no markers of any kind to indicate that they are there.
“There is nothing,” McBride said. “They have known about this for 21 years, and they’ve done nothing to give the public any idea that it was here, that this is a cemetery, that people are buried here. They could have done better than this.”
McBride knows that precedent and the law favor Froedtert’s plan. What was done before is likely to be done again.
The statutes guiding the Historical Society favor, in order:
- Proven blood relatives
- Related Native American tribes
- Scientific interest and research
- Community interest
Thus, McBride said, the community’s interest in its own people is trumped by scientific study, even though the remains are of a time and place already well known and documented.
“This would not even be considered if it were any other group, any other demographic,” he said. “As for the Native Americans, more power to them. They fought long and hard for the right to recover and reinter the remains of their people from museum collections and institutions.
“But we will treat our own this way? Can you imagine any other group standing for this, if it were anyone other than the indigent poor, who have no voice? Can you imagine if it were, say, a Jewish cemetery, and we referred to it as ‘that demographic’?
“These people did not live that long ago, there is not that much distance from us. Many of them died in the 1930s, in the Depression, when so many became indigent.
“They are awfully close to us. They are of us. In my mind, they deserve the same respect each one of us would want for ourselves and for our loved ones.”