Restoring lost names, recapturing lost dignity

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The Final Secrets of the Former Willard Asylum in New York

By DAN BARRY, New York Times

OVID, N.Y. - For a half-century, a slight and precise man with an Old World mustache resided as a patient at the Willard State Psychiatric Hospital, here beside spectacular Seneca Lake. You are not supposed to know his name, but it was Lawrence Mocha. He was the gravedigger.

Using a pick, a shovel, and a rectangular wooden template, he carved from the upstate loam at least 1,500 graves, 60 to a row and six feet deep. At times he even lived in the cemetery, in a small shack with a stove, beside a towering poplar.

The meticulous Mr. Mocha dug until the very end, which came at the age of 90, in 1968. Then he, too, was buried among other patients in the serene field he had so carefully tended.

But you will not find the grave of Mr. Mocha, whose name you should not know, because he was buried under a numbered marker - as were nearly 5,800 other Willard patients - and the passing years have only secured his anonymity. The hospital closed, the cemetery became an afterthought, and those markers either disappeared or were swallowed into the earth.

Now, though, this obscure gravedigger has come to represent the 55,000 other people buried on the grounds of old psychiatric hospitals across New York State - many of them identified, if that is the word for it, by numbers corresponding with names recorded in old books. This numerical system, used by other states as well, was apparently meant to spare the living and the dead from the shame of one's surname etched in stone in a psychiatric hospital cemetery.

A retired schoolteacher, Colleen Spellecy, is seeking to end the anonymity, which she says only reinforces the prejudices surrounding mental illness. One way to do this, she says, is to place a plaque bearing Mr. Mocha's name on the spot where his shack once stood.

"He's a symbol for what we want to do with all the rest," Ms. Spellecy said. "It's almost like if we could just do something for one, we could do it for all."

But the State Office of Mental Health, which oversees some two dozen hospital cemeteries tucked in upstate corners and along busy Long Island highways, has consistently denied her request. Its officials say that a generations-old state law protects the privacy of people who died in these institutions.

"Stigma and discrimination is alive and well, though I wish it were not," said John Allen, special assistant to the commissioner of mental health. "Outing every family, whether they want to be outed or not, does not conform with the reality."

But advocates say that other states have long since figured out how to return names to those buried under numbers - a process that the advocacy organization Mental Health America says would help to end prejudice and discrimination. In an email, its spokeswoman, Erin Wallace, wrote: "These people had names, and should never have been buried with us forgetting them."

Larry Fricks, the chairman of the National Memorial of Recovered Dignity project, an effort to create a Washington tribute to all mental patients buried without names, agreed. He suggested that the cost of memorializing so many people could be a factor in a state's reluctance - and some of those books with recorded names have been damaged and even lost over the many years.

The issue is not trivial, Mr. Fricks said. "There is something embedded deep in our belief system that when people die, you show respect."

In addition to his name and burial site, here is what else you are not supposed to know about Lawrence Mocha:

Born poor in Austro-Hungarian Galicia in 1878. Hit in the head with a rock as a young man. Drank heavily, was briefly institutionalized, and served in the Army. Emigrated, and found work at Bellevue Hospital in New York City. Caused a ruckus one day and was sent to the psychiatric unit, where he talked of guilt and depression, of hearing God and seeing angels.

Sent to Willard in 1918, never to leave.

Kept to himself for years, but eventually took an interest in tending to the graveyard. Requested freedom in 1945, but was ignored. Made an extra dollar here and there by preparing bodies for burial. Stopped having episodes, if that was what they were.

Dug, and dug, and dug.

Gunter Minges, 73, the last grounds superintendent at Willard, sat on his pickup's tailgate at the cemetery's edge and recalled Mr. Mocha in his last decade. A reclusive man, he said. Had special kitchen privileges. Smoked a pipe. Wore hip waders, because groundwater would fill his neat rectangular holes.

"He dug until he died," Mr. Minges said, and was rechristened with a number. Then, with a Catholic priest at graveside, the grounds crew used ropes to lowered Mr. Mocha's coffin into a hole dug by someone else.

"But where it is," Mr. Minges said, "I don't know."

Many of the numbered metal markers, forged by hospital patients and spiked into the ground, vanished over the years, sold for scrap or tossed into a nearby gully as impediments to mowing. In the early 1990s, groundskeepers began affixing numbered plaques flat onto the ground, but the job was left incomplete when the hospital shut down in 1995.

In a last-minute search of Willard's buildings for items worthy of posterity, state workers opened an attic door to find 427 musty suitcases. Among them: a brown leather case containing two shaving mugs, two shaving brushes, suspenders, and a pair of black dress shoes that a slight and precise immigrant hadn't worn since World War I.

The discovery of the suitcases led to an exhibit at the New York State Museum in Albany, a traveling display, and a well-received book about forgotten patients called "The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases From a State Hospital Attic." Confidentiality laws forced its authors, Darby Penney and Peter Stastny, to reluctantly use pseudonyms; Lawrence Mocha, then, became Lawrence Marek.

Ms. Penney said that for the last several decades of his life, Mr. Mocha exhibited no signs of mental illness and was not on any medication. Her guess: "There were certain people who were kept there because they were decent workers."

And Mr. Mocha was the meticulous gravedigger.

Ms. Spellecy read the book. She is a wife, a mother, and a retiree who lives in Waterloo, about a half-hour's drive from Willard. Visiting the cemetery for the first time, she "sensed the injustice immediately," she said, and quickly set about to forming the Willard Cemetery Memorial Project. Its mission: "To give these people a name and a remembrance."

Ms. Spellecy and other volunteers got on their knees to begin unearthing the numbered plaques. They searched the surrounding woods to salvage discarded metal markers. With the help of another former groundskeeper, Mike Huff, they erected signs to identify sections divided by religion - Protestant, Catholic, Jewish - and planted a small boulder where Mr. Mocha's shack stood.

They have also engaged in a contentious back and forth with the Office of Mental Health over its refusal to grant names to the dead - beginning with a plaque on that boulder to honor Mr. Mocha, and then, perhaps, a central memorial that would feature the names of all those buried anonymously or beneath numbers.

"It's as if they are saying that they own the cemetery and therefore they own the names," Ms. Spellecy said. "In so owning the names, they are owning the person - as if these people continue to be wards of the state."

State officials say that they are bound by state law to protect patient confidentiality, even after death, unless granted permission by a patient's descendants to make the name public. They also say that attempts to change the law have failed, and that, even now, some descendants express concern about prejudice.

Mr. Allen said that the state had worked with communities throughout New York to restore these cemeteries as places of reverence and contemplation, and had assisted families in locating graves. In fact, he said, "We have helped a number of families place a marker at a number."

But without some descendant's consent, Willard's dead will remain memorialized by a number, if at all.

State officials also say that at the request of the Willard Cemetery Memorial Project, they are searching for any relatives of a certain individual - they would not say "Lawrence Mocha" - who might grant permission for the public release of that individual's name. This is highly unlikely, advocates say, given that this individual never married and left Europe a century ago.

But Ms. Spellecy will not give up. She and other volunteers are developing a list of the dead through census rolls and other records, and hope to secure permission from descendants to have those names made public, perhaps even in granite.

When asked why she has committed herself to this uphill task, Ms. Spellecy paused to compose herself. With her eyes wet from tears, she said: "Every stage of life is very sacred. Life deserves to be remembered, and revered, and memorialized."

A few weeks ago, Ms. Spellecy and some others bundled up and went out again to the 29 acres of stillness that is the Willard cemetery. They removed a little brush and cleaned a little dirt from a few of the numbers in the ground.

The autumn winds carved whitecaps from the steel-gray lake below, while fallen leaves skittered across a field of anonymous graves, many of them dug by a man buried here too, whose name, Lawrence Mocha, you are not supposed to know.

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