Poor Lost Souls of Western State Hospital In Washington
Mary, Garden Statue
Lost Souls of Mental Hospitals
The rain splashed on the car windows, making everything outside look distorted, gray, and gloomy. I knew where we were and that the place of lost souls was just ahead. I was about eight years old and packed into the back seat of the car with my siblings. "Soon," I thought, "soon I will see it. All the windows staring out like blank eyes -- the lost souls inside calling out for help." I felt very apprehensive. A feeling of familiarity and sadness came over me. I did not understand these feelings or had a name for them -- they just kind of consumed me.
Then, there it was -- the looming, dark gray building of Western State Hospital, an institution for the mentally ill, came into view. This had always been a time of sadness for me. I heard Dad often say, "Poor lost souls," in a sad voice. Then I knew he was praying for them because I could hear him whispering and everyone else was very quiet. I was not sure at that time what he meant by "poor lost souls". I knew the hospital as a place where people lived because they needed help. I did not know what kind of help they needed or why they never got to go home. I just knew them as "lost souls". I felt their sadness and thought they had no one to love them. I had no faces to put to the people I imagined in there. Everything was gray and lonesome looking, and I imagined the people looked the same.
Old Western State Hospital, 1916
Walking Around the Grounds
Often I saw a few of them walking slowly around the grounds. Like everything else, the clothing they wore was a dingy gray and their faces were blurred. I did not mention it to anyone when I saw them. The first time I saw them I pointed them out and no one else in the car saw them. My brothers laughed and said I was making up stories. So I just watched the people wander around listlessly, as if lost and lonesome. "Were these the lost souls Daddy prayed for?" I pondered about that every time I saw them. Could the shadowy people I saw walking around the grounds have really been ghosts? Or were they just the product of a child's imagination? Maybe the rain sliding down the window was making ghostly patterns that looked like people from the past. Yet I had seen them on bright sunny days also.
Many years later I realized that what I was seeing must have been the "lost souls" -- those who had died and could not find their way to peace. I wondered, way back then as a child, what happened to the lost souls when they died. I had been taught that people go to Heaven when they die -- and I wondered if a soul was lost, where would it go?
In this case they did not go anywhere. They continued to wander around the hospital where they had worked on the farm, or in the bakery, or on the grounds. They stayed around the only home they knew in life. They lived with the ghosts of former patients who still roamed the halls -- as lost in the spirit world as they had been in life. No one had claimed them in life and no one claimed them at death. No funeral or memorial was given in their honor, no family gathered to pray for them or to help the spirits on their journey with peace and love. No name was put on their grave. Just a number on a little marker became their only claim that they once lived. A lonely end to a tormented life. They faded into obscurity.
The anonymity reflected a stigma of society against the mentally ill in earlier days.
Orphaned and Forgotten Souls
These orphaned and forgotten souls wandered bewildered over the land as they once wandered the frightening halls of their tormented minds. Were they searching for peace or some sense of familiarity? Or were they simply seeking some comfort in knowing that someone once remembered and loved them?
The historical cemetery of Western State Hospital in Lakewood, Washington, is full of their graves, each one with only a numbered marker. From 1876 - 1953 there were 3,200 people buried in the cemetery. They lie there with no identity, no recognition, no name. It is no wonder their spirits roam. Western State Hospital was built in 1871 -- eighteen years before Washington became a state on November 11, 1889. Until 2004 it was state law to not put names on the graves of psychiatric patients. The anonymity reflected a stigma of society against the mentally ill in earlier days. In 2004, a bill was signed by Governor Gary Locke that allowed the old numbered markers to be replaced with markers that have names and dates on them.
Tis but a day we sojourn here below,
And all the gain we get is grief and woe,
And then, leaving life's riddles all unsolved,
And burdened with regrets, we have to go.— Omar Khayyam
Committed to Western State Hospital, Newspaper Clippings From 1905 - 1913
When I started research for another article, I came across information that slapped me back to the days when, as a child, I worried about the "lost souls". It felt like once again I was in the back seat of my Dad's car, peering out the window at the huge hospital -- watching the wandering people on the grounds. Then I found information on a group called "Grave Concerns Association" and my heart became filled with joy. Someone cared!
Laurel Lemke, Chair of Grave Concerns Association in Washington, and others in the group, work to restore dignity and respect to these forgotten souls of times past. They have reclaimed the cemetery of Old Western State Hospital. They have fund raisers to help buy engraved markers with names and dates to replace the numbers.
In April of 2010, Laurel Lemke was awarded "Hometown Hero" for her invaluable key role in organizing a project to replace the numbered grave markers in the old hospital cemetery with headstones engraved with patient names.
I look upon these wonderful people who work so hard as Angels on Earth . They volunteer their time and energy to restore dignity and respect to the memory of the people who died with no identity given them. Western State Hospital and those poor lost souls are no longer just a sad memory for me. My deep gratitude and praise go out to these people who volunteer their time and efforts to bring peace to those who were never given proper memorials -- and lay forgotten for so many years in unmarked graves.
I felt a deep sense of healing and comfort when I found their web site. The child in me is no longer sad for those lost souls. I can now look back with the knowledge that these forgotten souls are glowing with joy. They are finding the peace they searched for in life and were denied after death.
I used to feel Dad's sadness when he prayed for the "poor lost souls". He was a very compassionate man who prayed a lot. Dad passed away many years ago. I am now older than Dad was in the days when we drove past the hospital. I still include him every night in my prayers. When I pray for his soul, I can now say, "It is ok, Dad. They found their way home."
Angels on Earth
There are those who do care
Who search the dusty archives
For those who lived there
Lost souls who once had lives
For every marker with no name
Of a soul who once did roam
For every person they now claim
One more lost soul has found a home.
by Phyllis Doyle Burns
August 17, 2010
For more information about Grave Concerns Association, call Laurel Lemke at (253) 761-7533 or Michael Hardie, volunteer coordinator, at 253-292-4193.
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I look upon these wonderful people who work so hard as Angels on Earth . They volunteer their time and energy to restore dignity and respect to the memory of the people who died with no identity given them.
Angels on Earth
© 2010 Phyllis Doyle Burns