The state Department of Public Welfare expressed regret Thursday for the deteriorated state of the former Dixmont State Hospital cemetery in Kilbuck and vowed to make sure it is not neglecting any other institutional burial grounds the state still owns.
“I can assure you we are committed to making sure that doesn’t happen again,” department spokeswoman Kait Gillis said.
After the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette raised questions about conditions at the Dixmont cemetery and the former Woodville State Hospital cemetery in Collier, the department dispatched a four- person cleanup crew Thursday to the former site. It pledged to keep up the property in the future.
Cleanup at the Dixmont cemetery
A maintenance crew begins the cleanup of the overgrown cemetery at the former Dixmont State Hospital. (Video by Bob Donaldson; 7/17/2014)
More than 1,300 people were buried at Dixmont, where some grave markers lean at an angle and others have fallen over or been buried under debris.
“Right now, we’re planning on uncovering the stones so we can see what repairs are needed,” said Larry Volpato, facility maintenance manager at Torrance State Hospital in Westmoreland County. Mr. Volpato headed the cleanup crew, which usually works at Torrance and arrived at Dixmont with pickup trucks, push mowers and weed wackers.
The grave markers bear numbers, not names, and some of the numbers are indecipherable. One marker is embedded in a tree trunk. In a couple of cases, the concrete part of the markers has worn away, leaving only rebar stakes.
Officials have closed several state hospitals in recent decades amid a push to treat people with mental illness in community settings. The burials at Dixmont occurred from 1863 to 1937. It wasn’t immediately clear where patients were buried between 1937 and the hospital’s closure in 1984.
Kilbuck businessman Ralph Stroyne, who bought most of the Dixmont site in 1999, said the state announced at the closing that it wouldn’t sell him the acre the cemetery occupies.
Ms. Gillis said the department did not realize until this week that the state still owned the cemetery and had an obligation to maintain it. Upon realizing it had that obligation, she said the department sent out the cleanup crew.
Ms. Gillis said the department meant no slight to the people buried there, adding, “We have the utmost respect for any individual who has gone through our programs and services.”
She said the department would check to make sure it isn’t neglecting maintenance at any other institutional cemeteries the state might still own.
The Woodville cemetery, now just outside a residential development, also is in bad shape, but the state no longer is responsible for it.
After Woodville closed in 1992, the state sold the property, including the cemetery, to a developer.
The developer deeded 50 acres, including the cemetery, to Collier for a park.
Initially, Collier Manager Sal Sirabella said the township had no plans for a cleanup. On Thursday, he said a cleanup might be incorporated into the planned construction of a recreational trail.
“I’m thinking of those kinds of things,” he said. The cemetery has as many as 1,064 graves dating from 1867 to 1949.
The Post-Gazette raised questions about the cemeteries 10 days ago, but the state did not provide answers or acknowledge it was sending a cleanup crew until a story about the dilapidated conditions appeared Thursday in the Post-Gazette. Ms. Gillis said it took time to get to the bottom of the situation.
Joe Smydo: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1548. First Published July 17, 2014 12:00 AM