An institutional funeral too often becomes a service for the burial of human secrets. A few years ago I held services for a mentally retarded patient with severe brain damage who had suffered through one day of pain after another until, at the age of twenty-one, his body had screamed “enough!” Only the father joined me in this service; the mother had more important things to do. On the way to the cemetery, I asked the father whether this boy had been his only child. Proudly he showed me pictures of his other two sons, both in college. I asked, “And how do they feel about the loss of their brother?” In a matter-of-fact voice he answered, “Oh, they don’t know they had a mentally retarded brother in an institution. We never told them.” I wish I could say this was an extraordinary attitude, but it is all too common.

A secret, according to the dictionary, is something that is “put apart, separate, hidden from others, revealed to none or few.” This is how many mentally retarded persons are treated throughout their lives. Every age has its special way of handling those who are “different.” In medieval times the retarded were objects of ridicule; many were drafted into the cruel position of court jester. More recently, many of us can remember the “village idiot” or moron and how we helped play cruel hoaxes on him. In this age of enlightenment we no longer play jokes on the mentally retarded; we simply hide them from view. They become a secret. How often we read the tragic account of a mental retardate locked in a room by parents who zealously guarded their secret. Sometimes after a retardate has been institutionalized, the family move, so they can make a new start and pretend the absent member does not exist. A hospital is sometimes ...

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