The New York State Office of Mental Health (OMH), Touro Law Center and the Community Association for Jewish At-Risk Cemeteries (CAJAC) recently announced their partnership to restore Central Islip State Hospital Cemetery, located adjacent to Touro Law Center. The cemetery will be renovated so as to expand access for individuals wishing to pay their respects to those interred within and will become a community space for reflection and contemplation. Additionally, Touro Law School students will assist families who wish to identify the grave site of a loved one buried within the cemetery.
OMH has committed up to $30,000 in private endowment funding for the rehabilitation of the cemetery, which will include: new benches, entry gates, security cameras and roadway rehabilitation. The funding originates from an endowment made to Office of Mental Health by the family of a former patient of the Harlem Valley Psychiatric Center, located in Wingdale, New York. The rehabilitation of the Central Islip State Hospital Cemetery will be the fifth State Hospital cemetery restored using endowment funds, joining other cemeteries located throughout Erie, Dutchess and Rockland Counties.
In addition to the announcement of the planned restoration of the cemetery, a traditional ceremony was held to bury Jewish prayer books from Pilgrim Psychiatric Center and elsewhere throughout Long Island which were damaged by Superstorm Sandy-flooding. Rabbi Melvyn Lerer, a Chaplain of OMH’s Pilgrim Psychiatric Center who has long been an advocate for the restoration of the Central Islip State Hospital Cemetery and who has helped indigent patients receive proper burial within the cemetery itself, presided over the service, along with Professor Samuel Levine of Touro Law School.
“New Colony”, which later became Central Islip State Hospital, opened in 1889 as a farm colony for 89 individuals with varying illnesses from Manhattan, New York City. In 1899, ownership of the facility was transferred from New York City to New York State. Post-transfer, the name was changed to Manhattan State Hospital, which was then changed to Central Islip State Hospital and finally to Central Islip Psychiatric Center. By 1955, Central Islip State Hospital was home to over 10,000 individuals with mental illness; had its own Long Island Rail Road spur and a campus which stretched over nine miles. The facility was closed in 1996 and the remaining adult patients were transferred to Pilgrim Psychiatric Center in West Brentwood, New York.
As was custom at the time, many psychiatric hospitals had a cemetery on-grounds and Central Islip State Hospital was no different. In many cases, individuals who received care at the hospital remained there for the rest of their life and either had no known family or due to the stigma surrounding mental illness, were not accepted by their families after their institutionalization. For these reasons, the hospital was responsible the burial of over 5,000 individuals in its 107 year history.
The majority of the graves within the Central Islip State Hospital Cemetery are marked with numbers instead of names, an effort to protect the identities of both patient and family alike. Touro Law School students have volunteered to work alongside OMH’s Office of Consumer Affairs to help family members locate loved ones buried within the cemetery. Families interested in finding a loved one who is thought to have been buried within a State Hospital cemetery may contact John Allen, Special Assistant to the Commissioner at 518-473-6579 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Touro Law Center has begun restoring the cemetery and efforts will be ongoing over the next few years. As part of those efforts, Touro Law Center will look to engage other community partners and funding sources to expand the restoration effort.