(WVUE) - For more than a century, people with a variety of mental illnesses have been committed to spending a significant portion of their lives at the Central Louisiana State Hospital in Pineville, and many of those who have died at the institution are now buried in unmarked graves. There is an effort underway to change that.
For decades, patients who died at the hospital were buried in what amounts to a potter's field. They were indigent or sometimes unclaimed by family members, perhaps due to the stigma of mental illness.
"They were buried by other patients who built pine coffins, and then there was a small concrete marker with their ID number marked on it, stamped in it," Abigail Sebastian said.
After touring the cemetery, Sebastian, a retired school teacher, joined a group that's trying to bring recognition to the lives that ended there.
"It's still just heartbreaking to me that these people who suffered when they were alive, many of them had no recognition for the ages that they even lived here and where they're buried and so on," Sebastian said.
In the early days, patients at the Central Louisiana State Hospital would endure harsh treatments – some were locked in chairs, confined to holding pens or force to sleep in crowded dorms. One building, called the rose cottage, was built in 1917. It housed the hospital's morgue, the last stop before a grave with no name. The first burials there were in 1906, within months of the opening of the hospital's opening. The burials continued for the next 50 years. There are only a handful of named markers in a cemetery with the remains of more than 2,000 thousand people. The centerpiece of the memorial contains a poem written by a former patient, Barry Voorhies. You can almost imagine him sitting in this peaceful spot, putting these words to paper.
"My spirit runs free like a bird flying high, like an eagle in the sky, like a river flowing free, your song carries me singing," Sebastian reads. "Run spirit, run spirit, run spirit, run spirit run.
The words are full of emotion.
"Their body may not cooperate like they want it to, but their spirit and their soul is free to talk," Sebastian said.
The goal of the cemetery preservation group is to raise enough money to erect a series of monuments.
"And so we've been able to match those numbers with the names, and sometimes with the location where they were born and their birth date," Sebastian said.
And the numbers that are nearly lost for the ages, will be replaced by names on those new monuments, in a final resting place where many, many souls were set free.
"Flowers start to bloom and the sun begins to shine, it's so fine," Sebastian reads. "And here I sit, just God and me, talking to him my spirit runs free."