Cemetery project would honor Willard's deceased

Courier photo by Mike Crupi

Gail Snyder (from left), Colleen Spellecy and Sheila Reynolds look for grave markers in a field on Seneca Lake that serves as a final resting place for 5,776 patients of the former Willard Asylum for the Insane. The women are spearheading an effort to preserve the cemetery as a historic site and want to erect a monument there with the names of the dead.

Posted: July 25, 2011

Last Updated: July 27, 2011

By Jennifer Burke/Catholic Courier

In 1918 an Austrian immigrant named Lawrence arrived at Willard Asylum, the state mental hospital on the shores of Seneca Lake that would become his home for the next 50 years. A veteran of the Royal Austrian Army, this man was no stranger to mental institutions. He'd previously spent time in mental hospitals in Germany and Long Island, where he reportedly sang, shouted and whistled boisterously and sometimes claimed to hear the voice of God and see angels.

Lawrence was a hard worker and became the hospital's unpaid gravedigger in 1937. Over the course of the next three decades he dug hundreds of graves in Willard Cemetery and even obtained permission to live in a small shack on the cemetery grounds in the warmer months. In 1968 he died at the age of 90, and became one of the permanent residents of the cemetery he'd toiled in for 30 years.

Colleen Spellecy, a member of St. Mary Parish in Waterloo, couldn't stop thinking about Lawrence after she read his story in The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases From a State Hospital Attic. The 2008 book by Darby Penney and Peter Stasny details the lives of 10 Willard residents whose belongings were among those found in an attic on the hospital grounds after the facility closed in 1995. The authors did not disclose Willard residents' last names because of privacy concerns.

Spellecy was troubled when she learned that Lawrence and most of the 5,775 others resting in Willard Cemetery do not have grave markers bearing their names.

"That really bothered me, that he dug over 900 graves and no one knows where he's buried," Spellecy said.

The graves of most Willard residents were marked with stones bearing numbers, rather than names, but many of those original markers have since been moved, she added. Spellecy was appalled at the cemetery's unkempt condition the first time she visited, and its condition hasn't improved, she said. Many of the markers that were moved were replaced with corresponding numbers on concrete-filled pipes dug into the ground. These newer markers are hard to find, however, because the cemetery is mowed no more than twice a year.

"When you go in there it's a meadow. You would never even know it was a cemetery," Spellecy said. "You have to dig around to find a marker. You'd need a metal detector to find some of those."

Spellecy believes the state of the cemetery and its unnamed graves is an insult to the dignity of the people who are buried there. Proper and respectful burial of the dead is important in both Christian and Jewish traditions, but that respect is lacking in Willard Cemetery, which has special sections for Catholics, Jews, Protestants and even Civil War veterans. The graves of the Civil War veterans are the only ones marked by headstones labeled with names.

"(The rest) remain faceless, they remain nameless, and their relatives can't even go visit them because they don't know where they are," Spellecy said.

Last March Spellecy gathered a group of like-minded individuals and launched the Willard Cemetery Memorial Project. Spellecy and her fellow committee members hope to erect a sign to let people know the area is a cemetery, as well as four obelisks bearing the names of the 5,776 deceased buried within. That's where progress has stalled, however.

New York state does have records detailing the names and burial sites of each former Willard resident, and Spellecy requested that information under the state's Freedom of Information Law. Her request was denied, however, on the grounds that it would violate privacy laws and might trigger discrimination against relatives of the deceased because of the continuing stigma around mental illness, Spellecy said. From her perspective, however, withholding that information just furthers the stigma that mental illness is something shameful that must be hidden.

Spellecy said many people have contacted her after hearing about the Willard Cemetery Memorial Project and asked her how they can find out the burial sites of family members who'd lived at Willard. Family members are permitted to request this information from the state under the Freedom of Information Law, and if many people do this they can gradually build a grassroots database of the names and locations of those in the Willard Cemetery, she said. Those interested in the project also can write to their elected officials and ask them to press for the release of this information, or donate money toward the purchase and creation of the signs and monuments Spellecy and her committee members plan to erect.

"I feel like the communion of saints is with me, helping me do this whole thing because they want to be memorialized," Spellecy said. "I feel from a Christian perspective, people should not be neglected. We need to speak their names, we need to honor their names."

EDITOR'S NOTE: For more information about the Willard Cemetery Memorial Project click here.

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