50 grave markers planned for historic Western State Hospital cemetery

The Grave Concerns Association, a group of community members and staff volunteers at Western State Hospital who operate as a 501-C3 organization dedicated to the restoration of the hospital’s cemetery, announced today it will replace 50 stone markers during May, which is Mental Health Awareness Month.

Called “Dignity for 50,” this effort is supported by the Regional Organizing Initiative of the Mental Health Transformation Grant as a vehicle to bring involved consumers from Greater Puget Sound together in an effort to combat stigma.

“With each numbered stone we replace, we erase some of the stigma of mental illness and restore the dignity and respect of that person,” said Laurel Lemke, an 18-year employee of Western State Hospital and the chair of the Grave Concerns Association.

According to the Grave Concerns Association, Western State Hospital staff member John Lucas launched the first effort in 2000 to bring attention to the long forgotten cemetery. While holding a simple ceremony over a few visible graves, hospital patients started to uncover additional markers laying beneath prairie grasses in a field near the old dairy barns that once served the hospital. That discovery began an effort to restore the cemetery and replace the numbered markers with markers featuring the name, birthdate and date of death of each patient buried in the cemetery.

More than 3,200 psychiatric patients from Western State Hospital were buried in the cemetery between 1876 and 1953. At the time, the graves were only marked with numbers — an attempt to protect the privacy of hospital patients.

Today, with a general realization that people with mental illness should bear no shame or stigma, Grave Concerns has been raising private funds to replace the numbered markers with gravestones that include the patients’ names, birthdates and date of death. Each marker costs $40 and 120 markers have been replaced to date, as well as a stone memorial with 500 patient names.

“This project restores dignity to the once-nameless patients buried here,” said Jill SanJule, Regional Organizing Initiative program manager. “It also helps educate the community, lessening fear and creating a better understanding of mental illness.”

Ceremonies to place the new grave markers will be held from 9am to noon on Sat., April 18 and Sat., May 30 in Lakewood at the historical Western State Hospital Cemetery located at 8714 9th Ave. SW in Fort Steilacoom Park. The community is encouraged to participate.