A historical society in Nebraska is attempting to gain access to the names and dates of death for people buried in a cemetery once reserved for psychiatric patients.
While state officials say releasing the information could infringe on the privacy of family members of the 957 people buried in the Hastings Regional Center’s cemetery from 1888 to 1959, attorneys for the Adams County Historical Society argue that such privacy rights disappear with a person’s death.
The Sioux City Journal’s article doesn’t explicitly suggest what public interest would be served through the information’s release. One could assume, however, that maintaining a historical record of a municipality and hospital’s residents over time is a common and accepted interest. Tracking names and dates would also seem necessary to adequately analyze the history of mental patient care in any given municipality.
The state maintains that the buried individuals’ names, as former mental illness patients, are protected by statute from public disclosure through a medical records exception. It’s difficult to reconcile this position, however, with the fact that autopsy reports and death certificates, for example, are public records in Nebraska when not directly part of law enforcement investigations.
Given the fact that an autopsy report contains, by definition, an individual’s medical information, it’s clear that the state’s medical records exception does distinguish between the living and the dead.