Grooming Graves

Right before Halloween, the city of Lakewood held a “Making a Difference Day.” My fellow AmeriCorps service members (who also work at the Goodwill HQ in Tacoma), my supervisor, and I met at Lakewood’s City Hall on a Saturday morning. We were welcomed with coffee and donuts – even the mayor was there. We waited around for a few minutes until a young woman gathered us in a large stale room where she briefly described the volunteer events to us all.

I figured since Halloween was right around the corner and that I wanted to spend my time outdoors, I’d volunteer to dig graves at Steilacoom Park Cemetery. After we were dismissed, I parted ways with the rest of my team, who decided to do other volunteer work, and drove to Steilacoom Park by myself. There, I met a few women who worked with the Grave Concerns Association, a program that grooms headstones, replaces old ones, and cuts the grass, among other things. It was a gloomy morning with a light drizzle in the air, appropriate for the type of work I was about to do.

There were two different groups listening to the women give directions. A young group of students, I assumed they were getting credit from their school, and an older group with tacky tattoos, I assumed were making up court service hours.

The directions were simple – people in groups of two or more were to dig near old headstones and place the new stones in their spots.

Because I was alone and kind of wanted to remain that way, my job was to groom around stones that had already been replaced. I was to remove grass growing around the edges of the stones which was covering up the deceased’s names.

After a short time, my knees started to get real muddy because of the moisture in the air that mixed with the dirt I dug up. One of the Grave Concerns coordinators approached me and thanked me for my time. I smiled and told her no problem.

As I moved from grave stone to grave stone, left to right, row to row, I paused at a large headstone and felt captivated by the thing so I took a picture with my cell phone and continued digging around the other graves. John Moore it read.

A half hour passed and I didn’t talk to anyone else. I felt my nose dripping, so I sat back, and took a drink out of my black coffee mug. As I looked up I noticed a small woman walking towards me. She had short spiky hair and looked like a charming little witch, dressed in black with white gloves. She couldn’t have been older than 50. “It’s amazing what you all are doing here,” she said through a thick Russian accent as she wiped torn grass off a headstone. She told me she was also a part of the Grave Concerns Association and that it pleased her knowing families of the deceased could come to the cemetery and see a nice new stone rather than one that nature was trying to devour.

As she started to walk away, I asked her if she knew anything about the dead. “I’ve noticed that most of the people buried here were generally in their 30s. Do you know anything about that? The age, I mean. They all died so young.”

She shrugged and said that most of the bodies buried in the cemetery were former patients of the Western State Hospital, a psychiatric hospital located across the street from the cemetery.

“They died at the hospital then?”

“Most of them, yes. John Moore is also buried here, too.”

“John Moore? Who was he? I saw his stone.”

“He was the first homesteader in the area. A wealthy man. After his wife died he lost his mind and he was put in the hospital.”

Later that evening, I found myself thinking about what the woman had said to me. Grave markers for the mentally ill.

My curiosity got the best of me and I researched the hospital and cemetery afterwards and discovered that “more than 3,500 mentally ill patients” were buried there. A lot of the old stones, some unmarked, most of them just numbered, sank into the ground, leaving nearly no traces of forgotten patients.

It wasn’t until a woman who was doing her own genealogy research discovered that her great-great grandmother had been buried at the cemetery with no-name grave stones. She then pushed to replace the crumbling markers with concrete headstones for the former patients, for their families.

“Now the family members have a place to mourn. Their names are there. Not just numbers,” the German woman told me. “Thanks again for coming out in the rain.”

Steilacoom Park

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