Volunteers who serve others are a special breed of people. Volunteers who help people they will never meet are even more special. Those who spend their time and donated dollars to return dignity to those otherwise unnamed souls who have already passed away serve in a league of their own.
Volunteers who toil in the mud and dirt of the patient cemetery at Western State Hospital are among this latter group. The all-volunteer Grave Concerns Association is a nonprofit restoring the historic Western State Hospital Cemetery at the center of Lakewood’s Fort Steilacoom Park. The cemetery is across the parking lot by a former dairy barn in the middle of the park and next to its off-leash dog areas.
The patient cemetery operated from 1876 until 1953 and was the burial site of patients who died at the hospital and were not claimed by their family members for whatever reason, from financial to lack of knowledge about the death. The grave-marking effort formed during the summer of 2000 with a simple idea of increasing awareness of the cemetery and maybe installing a sign or two for future generations to learn that some 3,200 people who died at the hospital were buried on the grounds with only numbered stones to mark their graves. The numbers were to shield 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.
“I just thought we would have an event, and that would be it,” GCA Founder and President Laurel Lemke said. “I didn’t know we would be changing state law and adding names.”
But that is what happened. The nonprofit changed the state law in 2004, so the graves could now include the deceased person’s name alongside the numbered grave marker. Some two decades after the nonprofit formed, volunteers are about halfway through the cemetery. They have 1,490 named granite markers left to create and install, all through private donations, proceeds from 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 added challenges to holding social distancing gravestone installation parties. Still, the group kept going from spring to fall, either ordering stones in batches or installing them into the ground thanks to handfuls of volunteers. Often whole families come out for a few hours to clean headstones, dig shallow holes for new ones or shuttle wheelbarrows of granite markers from trucks and car trunks to their final resting places. Yet other volunteers work behind the scenes, doing genealogical work, posting grave information on FindaGrave.com, writing grant requests, balancing checkbooks, managing social media accounts and corralling volunteers for work parties.
“There is always a place for someone if they want to volunteer,” Lemke said.
The volunteers were recently honored for their efforts by being listed among Eric’s Heroes, a segment of KOMO News broadcasts. While Grave Concerns was humbled by the broadcast’s publicity, the feature has been shared more than 1,000 times and liked by more than 7,000 people. It also exposed how ill-prepared the group was for the offers of assistance and donations generated by the publicity.
“It definitely made us feel good. It was a great honor.” Lemke said. “But we didn’t even have a way for people to make donations online.”
The group’s website now has a way to mail donations or donate online.
At the current rate of grave installations, all of the patient markers will be funded, created and in the ground in about ten years. But there will most likely be ongoing work for years to come after that. Grave Concerns also periodically cleans the gravesites at the small settlers’ cemetery at the center of Western State Hospital, as well as provides expertise and moral support for the efforts to do similar work at the inmate cemetery at McNeil Island.
It takes a lot of empathy to dedicate time and money to care for the dead. Those who volunteer with Grave Concerns Association have an incredible sense of duty to people long gone but not forgotten.