For 77 years, patients who died at Western State Hospital were buried in graves marked only by numbers stamped in bricks of cement.
It wasn’t about money.
It was about shame.
And it was about the law.
The state sought to protect families from the stigma of their relatives’ mental illness by barring state psychiatric hospitals from putting names on the graves.
Five years ago, the volunteers of Grave Concerns Association persuaded the Legislature to lift that ban. Ever since, they have been restoring the Western State Hospital Historic Cemetery. They have a solid start on honoring the 3,218 buried there. To date, they have installed 120 individual markers bearing names and birth and death dates. They’ve placed another 500 markers over the site where 500 patients’ cremated remains were buried.
Next weekend, they will place and dedicate the first 30 of 50 new markers at Fort Steilacoom Park.
They have done all this without state money.
They have done it with donations and bulb sales and the occasional grant – all to show that there is no shame to mental illness.
“This is not about the dead,” said Rosemary Chaput, the group’s treasurer. “This is about the living.”
Life surrounds the graveyard in what is now a park. All around it are playgrounds, ballfields, a dog park, walking trails.
Prairie grasses grow inside a perimeter defined by hedges and a split-rail fence. Grape hyacinths planted by schoolchildren bloom purple under that fence.
Laurel Lemke, chairwoman of Grave Concerns, had worked at Western State for years before she knew where the cemetery was. Grass had overtaken and buried the old cement markers.
People used it as an unofficial dog park.
“In the summer, people would come here and park under the trees, not knowing there was a cemetery here,” she said.
The only clue was the uneven ground where soil settled around disintegrating coffins.
Colleague John Lucas showed Lemke the cemetery in 2000. They pledged to restore it, and, with the help of Sherry Storms and Stacie Larson, worked with legislators Mike Carrell and Karen Fraser to get the simple permission to show patients’ names.
They struck up a partnership with the owners of Tacoma Monument, which is now Premier Memorial. Anyone can buy squares of granite engraved with a patient’s name, dates and the number on the original marker.
They invite school groups, service clubs, scouts and members of the military to help maintain the site, and to install markers.
“Every time we bring someone out here, we talk about mental health,” Lemke said.
They discuss post-traumatic stress disorder with war veterans.
They tell young people that, even without modern psychiatric drugs, the men and women now buried there once ran a farm, built furniture and maintained the hospital.
They trace the history of treatment for mental illnesses from hydrotherapy, shock treatment, and lobotomies to modern drugs that work.
Occasionally, they get calls from people who have a relative buried there. Always, they invite them to come visit. They use the GPS map that volunteer Jim Senko and City of Lakewood employee Lane DeLarme made to locate the grave.
They tell those families there is no shame to mental illness. It is as much a fact of life as arthritis or diabetes.
Lemke shares with them that her own bipolar disorder gives her special insight into the work she does with hospital residents.
Chaput, who, like me, has clinical depression, explains how modern drugs have saved her life. For her and others, shedding the stigma is a joyful crusade.
Even a century ago, some families objected in stone to the idea that they should hide their dear ones’ illnesses.
Family members bought a headstone for Michael Wutz, who lived at Western State after he suffered a head injury.
Lottie, who lived from 1853 to 1916, also had her own marker.
And Theresa Finkas’ family had “At Rest,” carved into her headstone when she died in 1897 at the age of 36.
These families no doubt would be honored to have you visit the cemetery where honoring the dead is no longer an act of courage, just a basic courtesy.
Kathleen Merryman: 253-597-8677