JACKSON, Miss. — Experts estimate up to 7,000 bodies are buried on the University of Mississippi Medical Center campus.

They are former patients of the state’s first mental institution, called the Insane Asylum, built in 1855, and underground radar shows their coffins stretch across 20 acres of the campus, where officials have wanted to build.

But those officials have faced a steep cost — $3,000 to exhume and rebury each body, as much as $21 million total.

Now UMMC is studying the cheaper alternative of handling those exhumations in-house, at a cost of $400,000 a year for at least eight years. It also would create a memorial that would preserve the remains with a visitors center and a lab that could be used to study the remains as well as the remnants of clothing and coffins.

Ralph Didlake, who oversees UMMC’s Center for Bioethics and Medical Humanities, believes the lab would be the first of its kind in the nation — giving researchers insight into life in the asylum in the 1800s and early 1900s.

The Mississippi Lunatic Asylum included a main building and several wings.

“It would be a unique resource for Mississippi,” said Molly Zuckerman, associate professor in Mississippi State’s department of anthropology and Middle Eastern cultures. “It would make Mississippi a national center on historical records relating to health in the pre-modern period, particularly those being institutionalized.”

Didlake, Zuckerman and others have formed the Asylum Hill Research Consortium, made up of anthropologists, archaeologists, historians and even an expert in dating the wood of the coffins.

It was the consortium that developed the memorial/visitors center/lab plans.

“We have inherited these patients,” Didlake said. “We want to show them care and respectful management.”