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Dignity for unnamed dead; Volunteers restore markers of patients from old hospitals

Most of the 1,200 patients of the former Gowanda Psychiatric Center and J.N. Adam Developmental Center buried in the fields near Clear Creek remain nameless, their graves marked with numbers.

But they are not forgotten, thanks to People Inc. and others who uncovered their graves over the past three years.

The anonymous patients, once institutionalized and forgotten by most, were remembered in a ceremony Thursday morning at the Wheater Road Cemetery in the Town of Collins.

People Inc. employees, advocates for the disabled and representatives from the Collins Correctional Facility gathered in the grassy hollow down a dirt road off Wheater Road.

When they started their restoration work, in one field only three headstones were visible, said Karen Lazik of People Inc.

"Now you can see 500," she said.

The cemetery has four sections on a secluded hillside off the country road leading down to a creek, a peaceful resting place for those who were shunned by society decades ago.

"I couldn't help but wonder how many people have never been down this road before," said Malcolm Cully, superintendent of Collins Correctional Facility, which still owns the property.

He praised the efforts of volunteers, who uncovered and reset the headstones.

"It's not really our mission, nor do we have the resources to do what you have done," Cully said.

The Gowanda Homeopathic Hospital, which became the Gowanda State Hospital, opened on Route 62 in Collins in 1898, and burials started the following year. Two sections contain small cast iron grave markers. There are many flat stones, and some vertical ones.

After determining where the markers were, each stone was unearthed, cleaned and set by volunteers from People Inc., Collins Correctional, the state Office of Mental Health, the Cattaraugus County Mental Health Association, Randolph Academy, Siena College and St. Bonaventure University.

But very few graves have names; most have a number. Those who were Catholic have a cross etched in the stone. Protestants have a wreath, and Jewish patients have the Star of David.

The names of the 40 known patients were read, their deaths starting in 1899 and ending in 1961. That's when burials were switched to a cemetery on Route 62, said Dave Mack Hardiman of People Inc. This is the third cemetery that volunteers from People Inc. have helped to restore.

Doves were released by Gay Meyers of People Inc. and Maria Ball, a docent at People Inc.'s Museum of disABILITY History and Training Center for Human Service Excellence. Because of threatening weather, the dedication of a garden at the site was postponed.

Ball, 51, moved to Buffalo 18 years ago, after spending her childhood years in three institutions in New York City.

She came Thursday because it is important for people with disabilities to know about the nameless patients, she said. She would have had it worse if she was born a century ago, she said.

"It still goes on today," she said. "People in the institution are just put in a room and left to vegetate. I know, I was one of them."

She said her friends would be amazed to see her today, living in her own apartment.

And for the patients buried in the peaceful cemetery, it did change Thursday with the gathering of people, the release of doves, and the mournful sounds of bagpiper Marley Becker playing "Oh Shenandoah, Going Home," and "Amazing Grace."

It changed with the acknowledgment that though their names remain unknown, they lived lives of value, worthy of dignity and honor, and they will be remembered.