Frequently Asked Questions
What is the Asylum Hill Project?
When a construction crew discovered skeletal remains on the University of Mississippi Medical Center (UMMC) Campus in 2012, further archaeological study revealed that there could be several thousand individuals buried in what was once a cemetery for the Mississippi State Lunatic Asylum, which had been located on the same grounds from 1855 to 1935. Dr. Ralph Didlake of UMMC assembled a group of scholars, the Asylum Hill Research Consortium (AHRC), to help lead the project, which involves both historic research and archaeological studies aimed at giving voice to those who lived and died at the Asylum.
Are you planning to exhume the remains of those buried in the Asylum Hill Cemetery?
As part of its long-term mission, the University of Mississippi Medical Center must eventually use that portion of its campus to expand and upgrade its medical offerings to better serve future patients. The Center for Bioethics and Medical Humanities (CBMH) at UMMC is leading the effort to have the remains removed before any new construction will take place. In 2019, the Mississippi Legislature appropriated funds for excavation of the cemetery.
Why don’t you simply leave the remains where they are?
As a state-funded institution, UMMC has limited resources. The most cost-efficient way to serve UMMC’s future patients is to carefully and professionally exhume, preserve, and relocate the remains in preparation for expansion of buildings and services.
Who will be doing the exhumation of the remains?
In 2022, UMMC hired Dr. Jennifer Mack, an experienced bioarchaeologist, to conduct the archaeological work. Dr. Mack will be leading a crew of experienced archaeology technicians to exhume and curate the remains.
Was every person buried in the Asylum Hill Cemetery once a patient at the Asylum?
Based on historical records, we believe the large majority, if not all, of the estimated 4000 to 7000 burials were patients at the Asylum between the years of 1855 and 1935.
Were the patients who died buried in one big mass grave?
No. Our team of archaeologists has found, based on magnetic imaging and on the limited exhumations already done (66 burials), that each individual buried at the Asylum Cemetery was placed in a simple pine coffin, likely built on site, and then interred. Our research also indicates the individuals were buried in accordance with Christian beliefs and the cultural practices of the time.
Why wouldn’t family members claim a relative’s body for burial?
There are many reasons a family might not be able to claim a relative’s remains for burial. Records reflect that bodies were normally buried within 24 hours of death. The limitations of communication and transportation as well as cost would likely have factored into the need to bury a patient in the Asylum Cemetery.
Were the graves always unmarked?
No. There are some headstones that remain today and can be seen at the UMMC Cemetery where they were relocated in 1992. Historical accounts suggest each grave was marked, at the very least, with a wooden marker and painted with the name of the person buried. Unfortunately, the markers deteriorated or were perhaps destroyed over time and are now lost to us. One of the actual wooden markers can be seen at the museum at the Mississippi State Hospital in Rankin County.
Why wasn’t the cemetery maintained over the years?
The Old Asylum ceased operation at the UMMC site in 1935 and all patients were transferred to the Mississippi State Hospital in Rankin County (Whitfield). UMMC did not open until 1955 and during the intervening two decades, the cemetery area of the Asylum lands was not maintained. Weeds, brush, and trees reportedly overtook it. Even after the Medical Center opened in 1955, that area of the campus was reportedly overgrown and largely inaccessible.
What is the process for exhumation of a burial site?
The AHP bioarchaeologist, Dr. Jennifer Mack, will identify the exact location of and depth of burial for each grave. Dirt above the coffins will be removed using equipment like a trackhoe. Once the top coffin material is revealed, the archaeology team will use hand implements, such as trowels and brushes, to carefully remove dirt around the coffins and remains. This ensures the best possible preservation of all material associated with the burial. The remains will be carefully and respectfully removed from the graves along with any remnants of a coffin, coffin hardware, clothing, or objects placed in the grave. These will be cleaned and allowed to dry before being boxed in special archival boxes and placed in a repository designed specifically for that purpose. The temperature-controlled archival space where the sets of remains will be placed is located on the UMMC campus.
Will you be able to identify my relative’s remains?
Identification of skeletal remains very difficult at this time. The exhumation and careful curation of the remains will, however, preserve and stabilize them for the possibility of future identification.
What about testing the DNA?
Because of the age of these remains (all believed to be interred before 1935) and the nature of the soil and climate in this area, DNA samples from individual remains may be difficult to obtain. Our archaeologists, however, will make every effort to gather and preserve DNA material whenever possible.
What will you be able to tell from the remains?
Each individual set of remains will be analyzed using up-to-date methodology to estimate age at death, sex, ancestry, and to describe any evidence of health, stress, and disease present on the bones. We hope to use these observations to understand the experience of those who lived and died in the asylum.
Can I provide my DNA to help match it to my relative?
The AHRC is currently exploring options regarding the gathering and storage of DNA samples from descendants who are interested in this option in order to identify a certain set of remains. At this time, the AHRC is consulting with leading DNA specialists to determine what processes using DNA matching might be practical for this project.
Will UMMC be using these remains for study or scholarly research other than that which is necessary for possible identification?
Additional analysis and research may be conducted if that work has the potential to create a clearer understanding of life at the Asylum or conditions the patients may have experienced prior to admission to the Asylum.