Numbered Stones

hospitalThey came here brain-sick, tired, confused, perhaps unwanted, but so alone…..sent away from their homes….to be treated and cared for at a time when care was mostly just locking them away. They needed to be understood and they needed compassion and love. Perhaps, they got some but the records do not show hope or love or compassion. The records only show the names….and more pain and suffering in the name of treatment. They lived here in buildings they had to build themselves and they died here…alone.

crossAnd someone, some nameless clerk, wrote their names for the last time in some ledger perhaps and assigned them a number. And their death certificates were signed and sealed and stored away. Then they were taken out through the hospital grounds, past the water tower, on past the waste treatment plant, over the bridge and into the woods where they were buried at the little cemetery on the top of the hill… they were laid to rest with the others whose final resting places were marked only by the small stones inscribed with the numbers that had been assigned to them at the end.

And the names of the people buried there were lost.

Num 1482Over the years, the world changed and treatment protocols for mental illness changed and no one wanted to know how the patients had been treated back then or how many had died. For no one wanted to admit that such things were done to anyone….things done even with the hope that such methods might rid a soul of the demons and the pain that was so difficult for anyone back home to understand.

So, finally, the old state hospital was closed and the patients were all moved to other private facilities and all the records were stored away somewhere and then too, at last, lost. Few, if any, even cared to search the old records or to even try to find out the names of those who had disappeared into the old brick buildings never to be heard from again. And the land and the woods and the hillside with the graves were ceded to a land trust (in part) to preserve the land and the trust gave over the land to the birds and the foxes and the trees and the flowers and only they live there now.

So the graves with the numbered stones were lost.

Num 89In the spring, the trust decided to open the land and allow hikers and birders and nature-lovers and history buffs to enjoy the beauty of the fields and the woods out past the old hospital so we went along to enjoy a lovely “Walk for the Woods”. We worked our way through the hospital grounds, past the no trespassing signs, and the waste treatment ponds, through the chain link fence with its locked gate open today, across the bridge, and beyond to the meadow to walk with the others. And we found peacefulness and beauty as we lingered in the woods so we stopped to say hello to the land trust volunteers and to make a small donation for the continued preservation of the land.

And she was there with the other volunteers, tall and serious, answering questions and holding a basket of rose petals and a old plastic bowl filled with white paper strips. On each of the paper strips in small black type was written a name and a number. She handed us one of the paper strips and a handful of rose petals and pointed to the hillside behind her. Go up on the hillside, she told us, and find the stones. When you find them, find the number on your strip of paper. Then leave the rose petals on the grave and say the name out loud so that once again, the person buried there will have a name and someone will put the name and the number together and so once again someone will know who is buried here….the nameless one will be known again if only for a minute or two. For just a moment, you will know who was buried there so long ago.

Num 1353So we did. We wandered up the hillside and meandered among the stones and we noticed that others had been there and left rose petals on the grave sites. We sat on an old log in front of a wooden cross and enjoyed the serenity of the forest and wondered about the people buried there. Where had they come from….how had they ended up buried in these woods under those numbered stones……what pain and torment they had endured because no one really understood their illness….and had anyone loved them and missed them and had wondered what had happened to them all those years ago? And, finally, we found the stone with the number we’d been given and we scattered our rose petals on the grave, and we said a prayer for the one whose name we spoke although time has long erased any good that could come from praying for the dead buried there. No matter – we prayed….thankful that things now are not what they used to be…with hopes that it will never be like that again for those who are depressed and brain-sick and alone…and lost.


cemetery 1For more information about:

  1. Crownsville State Hospital (Originally Hospital for the Negro Insane)
  2. Crownsville Hospital Cemetery (Burial grounds for patients from the hospital)
  3. Crownsville Cemetery Grave Search Results
  4. Article on Historian Janice Hayes-Williams (Local historian trying to identify those buried in the Cemetery)
  5. Scenic Rivers Land Trust (Preserving the land behind the hospital/Bacon Ridge Natural Area)
  6. Bacon Ridge Natural Area (BRNA) (Conservation easement that includes the site of the Hospital Cemetery)
  7. Walk for the Woods 2015 (Annual fund-raiser that allows the public into BRNA)