The Anonymous Burial Ground at Willard State Hospital formerly, The Willard Asylum for the Insane
The conditions that exist at the Willard State Hospital Cemetery are disgraceful. It is not visible from the road; it is not marked in any way as being a cemetery; and it is not well maintained. It is my understanding that the State of New York is responsible for the upkeep and care of this burial ground. There needs to be a clearly identifiable sign stating that this is the Willard State Hospital Cemetery; a safe entrance and drive way; a designated parking lot; roads within the cemetery; clear signs dividing the cemetery into groups: Catholic, Protestant, Jew, Veteran; and signs designating the section and lot numbers.
The Inmates of Willard were never asked if they wanted a headstone inscribed with their name atop their final resting place; they were buried anonymously with numbered metal markers. The exceptions were veterans who have headstones provided by the U.S. government, inscribed clearly with the deceased’s name. At some point during the 1980s or 1990s, most of the upright metal markers were replaced with flat aluminum markers or disks that were sunk in concrete poured into PVC pipe to make it easier to mow the vast cemetery lawn.
The New York State Office of Mental Health has classified the burial ledger of the Willard State Hospital as a medical record thus denying access to the people of the state. The names of the patients and the location of their graves must be made available to the public in order that they may find their ancestor, visit the grave, and purchase a headstone if they wish to do so. Currently, descendants cannot provide headstones for their ancestors or find out if an ancestor is buried on asylum property because inquiries have been denied by the Office of Mental Health.
It is disappointing that New York State and the OMH have chosen to show such disrespect for our ancestors. The people of the State of New York have a right to know where their ancestors are buried. Anonymous burials are common for state mental institutions across New York and the country. Not only is this unacceptable, it is disgraceful. The time has come to accept the mistakes of our past and turn a wrong into a right by releasing the names of the people who were buried in anonymous graves at the Willard State Hospital Cemetery; all state hospital cemeteries held by the State of New York; and all state mental institution cemeteries across America.
The broad term insanity of the nineteenth century equals the terms mental illness or psychiatric disability of the twenty-first. When I think of insanity, Hollywood imagery comes to mind. A madman clad forcibly in a stark white straight jacket, filthy, screaming at no one, walking in circles, talking to himself, and laughing in the darkness of a padded room. And there it is; the stigma that has lasted for centuries, attributed to all who had lost their minds, from the elderly with dementia to epileptics to violent and sadistic murderers. The stigma needs to end.
Mention your ancestor was an inmate at Willard and most likely the response is derogatory. Mental illness carries a stigma unlike any other because we don’t understand what it is and we cannot see the pain and debilitating effects on the body like we do with physical illness. Few hesitate to announce that an ancestor had heart disease, high cholesterol, or diabetes; not many disclose there was mental illness in the family. Why? In my opinion, three basic reasons are responsible: fear, ignorance, and intolerance. If your mother were crazy then you might be crazy too; fear of judgment as mentally unstable because a family member – past or present – suffered or is suffering from a psychiatric disability and our propensity to suffer from the disease as well. We cannot be informed on every subject, especially one as complex as mental illness. We can try to understand the plight of the Inmates of Willard with understanding, greater knowledge, and tolerance.
Thank you for giving me this opportunity to share with you, what I think, is an important matter. Your support is greatly appreciated; I need all the help I can get! If you have a few moments, please visit my blog and facebook cause page to learn more and get involved. Thank you again!
Linda S. Stuhler