Tucked away on the northeast side of University of Mississippi Medical Center's campus in Jackson is a patch of trees which has been left untouched — and for the most part forgotten — for the better part of a century.
Dr. Ralph Didlake, a transplant surgeon by trade, now heads up the UMMC Center for Bioethics and Medical Humanities. He didn't mean to become an expert on this patch of land's history, but is now leading the charge to build a memorial to the thousands who call it their final resting place.
"Many of these people were abandoned by their families because of their mental health issues," Dr. Didlake said. "For which there was no treatment at the time."
The land UMMC sits on was once the site of the Mississippi State Lunatic Asylum from 1855 to 1935.
Didlake has studied the asylum's history and says when the facility opened it was considered state of the art. It quickly became overcrowded and became more of a "warehouse" for people with mental health problems.
"There was no other way to manage," he said. "There was no drug management. No psychiatry available, so if you had someone who had a behavioral disorder in your community the best thing was to get them out of your community."
If patients committed in the asylum died and were not claimed by their families they were buried in a cemetery behind the facility in unmarked graves.
"That site has been largely forgotten over the years and rediscovered through construction projects on our campus," Didlake said.
In 2012, construction crews unearthed 66 wooden coffins while re-doing a road on the campus. A survey for a potential parking garage on the site in 2014 revealed up to 2,000 bodies were buried on the grounds. A more recent and more comprehensive scan of the area upped that number to potentially 7,000.
Now, in an effort to learn more about who the 7,000 people are and to honor their all-but-forgotten lives, Didlake is pushing to have a memorial built to give the public and relatives a place to pay their respects. He says it would also allow the bodies to be exhumed and kept in a respectful place.
"They certainly weren't cared for at the same kind of standard that we would expect today," Didlake said.
Exhuming the bodies would allow for potential identification and studying their life.
"That's one of the things we can learn from careful examination of these remains - what was their experience like?" Didlake said.
Didlake is hopeful that if the remains can be identified and connected to descendants, scientists might be able to further study the heredity of mental illness.
Overall, he says the hospital has a moral obligation to these 7,000 people.
"We're a healthcare institution," Didlake said. "In a very tangible way we have inherited these patients. So for us it's a continuity of care issue.
The memorial and exhuming process Didlake is proposing would cost around $3.2 million dollars over an eight year span.