As state mental institutions close, the final resting places for many patients are forgotten
July 17, 2014 12:14 AM
A tree has grown around an old grave marker at Dixmont Cemetery in the woods behind the former Dixmont State Hospital property in Kilbuck.
Isolated in the woods of the former Dixmont State Hospital property in Kilbuck are the crumbling concrete markers of more than 1,300 graves of patients who died from 1863 through 1937.
By Joe Smydo / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
A hillside cemetery in Kilbuck holding the remains of more than 1,300 Dixmont State Hospital patients has gone to seed, with some of the numbered concrete markers leaning, toppled or broken and others covered by brush and branches.
About 20 miles south, in Collier, as many as 1,000 graves from the Woodville State Hospital campus are in a similar state, a dense tree canopy making it difficult even to walk upright among the neglected markers.
As the state has closed hospitals for people with mental illness and centers for people with intellectual disabilities, it has stopped caring for the cemeteries that were part of the sprawling campuses.
In some cases, such as a fenced Cecil plot containing about 30 graves from the former Western Center complex for people with intellectual disabilities, municipal officials or other parties have taken over maintenance.
“We pay right now to have it hand-mowed twice a month,” said Wayne Fleming, executive director of Washington County Authority, which bought 216 acres of center land from the state to expand the Southpointe business park.
But no one is minding the Woodville or Dixmont sites.
“It’s pretty much abandoned,“ Collier manager Sal Sirabella said of the Woodville cemetery, now owned by the township.
Mr. Sirabella estimated the site holds 130 to 150 graves. However, the Rev. George DeVille, administrator of Holy Rosary Parish in Cecil Township and former chaplain at Woodville and Mayview State Hospital in South Fayette, said he’s certain that there are 1,064 graves at the Woodville cemetery.
“I counted them,” Father DeVille said.
Other states also have abandoned cemeteries as they closed institutions and shifted to community-based care. In some places, government agencies and volunteers are working to restore burial sites, saying it’s time to give a measure of dignity to people who were marginalized in life and forgotten in death.
“There’s no excuse for it not being a priority. On the other hand, we know the mental health system, in general, is starved for resources,” said Bob Carolla, spokesman for National Alliance on Mental Illness.
Neither the state Department of Public Welfare, which operated Woodville and Dixmont, nor the state Department of General Services, which oversees state properties, has responded to questions about the dilapidated cemeteries. Nor did they respond to questions about whether the state has records matching the numbered markers with people buried in the graves.
The 407-acre Dixmont facility was opened in 1862 and closed in 1984. Its buildings were demolished about a decade ago. The state sold 406 acres to Kilbuck businessman Ralph Stroyne, who re-sold about 75 acres for a Walmart shopping center project that was halted by a landslide.
At the last minute, Mr. Stroyne said, the state refused to sell him the acre occupied by the cemetery. But other than one half-hearted cleanup several years ago, he said, the state has done nothing with the site. A volunteer cleanup took place in 2007.
The cemetery is off an unmarked road that cuts across Mr. Stroyne’s property.
A tattered sign says “Dixmont State Hospital Cemetery.” A granite marker says the site holds the remains of 1,300 patients, including war veterans, who died from 1863 to 1937. Beyond, under the trees, are crumbling rows of graves.
The rounded concrete markers are about 6 inches wide and a foot tall. In a maintenance building, Mr. Stroyne said, he found the forms used to make the markers. He also found a list of those buried.
Some of the markers lean, and others have fallen over. One is embedded in a tree trunk. Some lie under branches or other debris. In a couple of cases, the concrete has eroded completely, leaving only two pieces of rebar to mark someone’s resting place.
Woodville, which opened in the mid-19th century and closed in 1992, was a poorhouse and tuberculosis hospital before it became a hospital for people with mental illness. The cemetery is 100 yards or so past a cul-de-sac in a residential neighborhood.
“It‘s just a long forgotten piece of property,” said Cecil Township resident David DeSafey, a former state hospital employee who has posted footage of the dilapidated cemetery on YouTube.
Developer Jack Cargnoni said the cemetery was part of 50 or so acres he deeded to the township for a park about 15 years ago.
A granite monument at the edge of a clearing says the cemetery was used from 1867 to 1949. Behind the monument, under the trees, are markers similar in size and condition to those at Dixmont.
“It’s very, very overgrown,” Mr. Sirabella said.
In the 1980s, at the urging of Ginny Thornburgh, wife of then-Gov. Dick Thornburgh, the state undertook a spate of cemetery improvements, including the replacement of more than 1,000 numbered headstones at Polk Center in Venango County with markers bearing the names of those buried there. At the time, Mrs. Thornburgh said she was “haunted” by the numbered graves.
But any improvement efforts at Dixmont and Woodville were short lived and did not include replacement of numbered markers. The Woodville chaplain for 28 years, Father DeVille said he could not recall a time when the cemetery was well maintained.
At least two former institutional cemeteries are being kept up.
South Fayette officials maintain a fenced plot with about 30 numbered graves at Fairview Park. The graves once were part of the Mayview State Hospital complex, which closed about five years ago following a protracted downsizing.
Morganza, a reform school, turned into Western Center, which closed in 2000. In purchasing Western Center land for a second phase of the Southpointe business park in Cecil Township, Washington County officials had to agree to maintain the 80-foot-by-60-foot cemetery.
“We took a rather proactive and positive attitude,” Mr. Fleming said, citing plans to make the cemetery more aesthetically appealing. Possible improvements, he said, include a walkway and reflection area.
Some of the 28 graves have names on them. The most recent burial was in 1917.
Interest in restoring state hospital cemeteries around the country prompted the U.S. Center for Mental Health Services to fund publication of a how-to manual.
Mr. Carolla said his organization supports restoration efforts but noted that volunteers can face significant challenges in gaining access to the sites, covering project costs and identifying the buried.
In Ohio, state officials have awarded grants to groups that want to restore cemeteries.
The recipients included a committee that’s worked for 14 years to restore and maintain three cemeteries that once were part of a mental hospital in Athens. In all, the group has raised $100,000 in grants and in-kind contributions, allowing the volunteers to clear brush, repair markers, build a nature trail and rebuild a pond.
“It’s been sort of a release for me to have that project,” said longtime volunteer Tom Walker, whose son has a mental illness.
Advocates say the clean-ups help to cast a modern light on mental illness. Mr. Walker said they’re “a stigma buster.”
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