Western State Cemetery

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I am not afraid of the dead. I love cemeteries, the older the better. I find them peaceful and if there are restless spirits, they likely belong to the living. A visit to an old cemetery is my idea of time well-spent.

Near where I attended high school is Ft. Steilacoom park and within that park is the cemetery for Western State, a hospital for the mentally ill. Buried in the cemetery are over 3000 patients, their graves originally marked with numbers to spare the families the ‘humiliation’ of mental illness. In high school there were dares to go to the cemetery at night–visions of deranged ghosts in teenage minds. I was never afraid. I thought the falling down, grown-over stones in the moonlight were beautiful.  I didn’t know that in the early 2000s a group called Grave Concerns Association had begun the work to match up names to the numbers and mark the graves more fully.

We have come a long way from the days that Western State was named Insane Asylum of Washington Territory (for the care of insanity and idiocy). But still, there is stigma attached to mental illness. This cemetery was utilized from 1876-1953. I was struck, as I wandered around, how many woman were buried there. That even with the matching project, many of the deceased had incomplete records, such as a date or even year of birth. I saw a couple marked with “Indian.” I wonder how many of the ‘insane’ were depressed, or anxious. Or if their insanity was being not white. First homesteader of Des Moines, WA John Moore is buried here. He had Alzheimers. There is a Civil War Veteran. I wonder if he had PTSD.

The entire time I was aware that had I been alive during that time, I would likely have been a patient there. That one of these gravestones could be mine. It renewed my commitment to be open about my struggles with depression and to continue to belligerently insist that mental illness be openly discussed. It is not shameful. It is not something to be embarrassed about or to hide. It simply is.

Please peruse the gravestones I photographed.

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