Volunteers who serve others are a special category of people. Volunteers helping people they will never meet are even more special. Those who spend their time and donated money to restore their dignity to these otherwise nameless souls who have already passed serve in a league of their own.
Volunteers toiling in the mud and dirt of the Western State Hospital patient cemetery are among the latter group. The all-volunteer Grave Concerns Association is a non-profit organization that restores the historic Western State Hospital Cemetery in the center of Lakewood’s Fort Steilacoom Park. The cemetery is across the parking lot near an old dairy barn in the middle of the park and next to its off-leash dog areas.
The Patient Cemetery operated from 1876 to 1953 and was the burial place for patients who died in hospital and were not claimed by their family members for any reason, from finances to lack of knowledge about the death. The burial effort formed in the summer of 2000 with a simple idea of raising awareness at the cemetery and perhaps installing a sign or two for future generations to learn that some 3,200 people who died at the hospital were buried on the ground with only numbers. stones to mark their graves. The numbers were intended to protect future family members from the social stigma of having a mentally ill ancestor in their family tree – a belief that has only recently been corrected.
“I just thought we would have an event, and that would be it,” said GCA Founder and President Laurel Lemke. “I didn’t know we were going to change state law and add names.”
But that’s what happened. The nonprofit changed state law in 2004 so graves could now include the name of the deceased person next to the numbered headstone. Some two decades after the nonprofit was founded, the volunteers are about halfway to the cemetery. They have 1,490 named granite markers left to create and install, all thanks to private donations, proceeds from art, jewelry and home decor garage sales, and grants from service groups and churches. , namely The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Boy Scout troops. in Lakewood and Steilacoom.
The COVID-19 pandemic has added challenges to holding socially distanced headstone installation parties. Still, the group continued from spring to fall, either ordering stones in batches or setting them in the ground by a handful of volunteers. Often entire families go out for a few hours to clean headstones, dig shallow holes for news, or haul wheelbarrows of granite markers from trucks and car trunks to their final resting places. Yet other volunteers work behind the scenes, doing genealogy work, posting serious information on FindaGrave.com, writing grant applications, balancing checkbooks, managing social media accounts, and gathering volunteers for task forces. .
“There’s always a place for someone if they want to volunteer,” Lemke said.
The volunteers were recently honored for their efforts by being listed as one of Eric’s heroes, a segment of KOMO News shows. Although Grave Concerns was hit by the show’s publicity, the feature has been shared over 1,000 times and enjoyed by over 7,000 people. He also revealed how ill-prepared the group was for offers of help and publicity-generated donations.
“It definitely did us good. It was a great honour. said Lemke. “But we didn’t even have a way for people to donate online.”
The group’s website now offers a way to send donations by mail or donate online.
At the current rate of funeral facilities, all the patient terminals will be financed, created and buried in about ten years. But there will most likely be work in progress for years after that. Grave Concerns also periodically cleans the burial grounds of the Little Settlers Cemetery at Western State Hospital Center, and provides expertise and moral support for efforts to do similar work at the McNeil Island Inmate Cemetery.
It takes a lot of empathy to spend time and money caring for the dead. Those who volunteer with Grave Concerns Association have an incredible sense of duty to those long gone but not forgotten.