Volunteers who serve others are a special breed of people. Even more special is the volunteers who help people they will never meet. Those who spend their time and have donated money to restore their dignity to these otherwise anonymous souls who have already passed serve in a league of their own.
Volunteers who toil in the mud and grime of the Western State Hospital patient cemetery are part of the latter group. All voluntary Association of serious concerns is a non-profit organization that is restoring the historic Western State Hospital Cemetery in the center of Lakewood’s Fort Steilacoom Park. The cemetery is across the parking lot near a former dairy barn in the middle of the park and next to its off-leash dog areas.
The Patients’ Cemetery operated from 1876 to 1953 and was the burial place of patients who died in hospital and were not claimed by family members for whatever reason, ranging from money to shortage. knowledge of the death. The tomb-marking effort formed in the summer of 2000 with a simple idea of ââpublicizing the cemetery and perhaps putting up a sign or two for future generations to learn that some 3,200 people have died. in the hospital were buried on the ground with only stone numbers to mark their graves. The numbers were to protect future family members from the social stigma of having an ancestor with a mental illness on their family tree – a belief that is only now being corrected.
âI just thought we would have an event, and that would be it,â said Laurel Lemke, Founder and President of GCA. “I had no idea we would change the state law and add names.”
But that’s what happened. the non-profit changed state law in 2004 so that graves could now include the name of the deceased next to the numbered headstone. About two decades after the association was created, the volunteers are roughly halfway through the cemetery. They have 1,490 named granite markers left to create and install, all through private donations, the proceeds of garage sales of art, jewelry and decorations, 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 organizing social distancing gravestone installation parties. Still, the group continued from spring to fall, either ordering stones in batches or installing them in the ground with a handful of volunteers. Often, entire families come out for a few hours to clean tombstones, dig shallow holes to find new ones, or haul wheelbarrows of granite markers from trucks and car trunks to their final resting places. Yet other volunteers are working in the shadows, doing genealogical work, publishing serious information about FindaGrave.com, write grant applications, balance check books, manage social media accounts and gather volunteers for task forces.
âThere is always a place for someone if they want to volunteer,â said Lemke.
Volunteers were recently honored for their efforts by being listed among the Eric’s Heroes, a segment of KOMO News shows. While Grave Concerns has been humbled by the show’s publicity, the feature has been shared over 1,000 times and loved by over 7,000 people. It also revealed how ill-prepared the group was for offers of aid and ad-generated donations.
âIt really did us good. It was a great honor. Lemke said. âBut we didn’t even have a way for people to donate online. “
the group website now has a way to send donations by mail or donate online.
At the current rate of funeral facilities, all of the patient markers will be funded, created and buried within ten years. But there will most likely be some work going on for years to come after that. Grave Concerns also periodically cleans the graves at the small settler cemetery at the center of Western State Hospital, and provides expertise and moral support to 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 the Grave Concerns Association have an incredible sense of duty to those long gone but not forgotten.