Lakewood, Wash. Faded numbers stamped into small cement blocks marked the graves of more than 3,200 mentally ill patients buried here at Western State Hospital between the 1870s and 1953. Over time, the stones themselves sank into the earth, leaving the dead in almost perfect obscurity.
But a nearly decade-long effort by volunteers — buoyed by national efforts to bring light to these forgotten cemeteries — has put names to some 660 people who went unclaimed by either family or friend after dying at the state’s largest mental hospital, about 40 miles south of Seattle.
The remaining numbered stones have been restored to the surface, cleaned and await their own personalized plaques. Another 59 markers will be added this fall.
“It’s righting a wrong,” said Laurel Lemke, chairwoman of Grave Concerns Association, the volunteer group working to give each person a named marker. “For me, a lot of it is reducing the stigma of mental illness.”
The hospital has always had a mapped list of the names of those who are buried in what once was the hospital farm, but the stigma of mental illness, and the state’s confidentiality laws, led to decades of numbered markers, Lemke said.
The project at Western State is part of a national movement to attach names to more than 100,000 such graves across the country, “symbolically giving voice and dignity to people who have been ostracized by their communities,” said David Shern, president and CEO of Alexandria, Va.-based Mental Health America, a national advocacy group.
Similar efforts have been undertaken in several states, including Massachusetts, Georgia, New York and California. A new national memorial dedicated to the unnamed graves of the mentally ill broke ground at Saint Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, D.C. in June.