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Western State Hospital's numbered graves get names, thanks to these volunteers

This story originally aired on April 20, 2019.

At most cemeteries, the graves tell a little story. The name of the person buried there, the day they were born, and the day they died.

But at a historic cemetery outside Western State Hospital, an inpatient psychiatric hospital in Lakewood, Washington, the graves only have numbers.  

The cemetery was operational between 1876 and 1953, and the more than 3,000 people who are buried there died while getting treatment for mental illness. The graves went unmarked, the story goes, so their families could keep that a secret.

When Laurel Lemke first saw the place in the early 2000s, the markers had sunk into the ground and were barely visible. It bugged her, so she organized a group of people to do something about it. That was nearly 20 years ago. And it led to two decades of advocacy for the cemetery.

Today, Lemke is chairwoman of the Grave Concerns Association, a volunteer organization with a sole purpose: to install headstones above the graves in this cemetery.

In this story, we hear the story of how a plot formerly known as “Grave #2695, Can #331” became known as the resting place of a person: Ruby Violet Knight, 1897 – 1939.