Willard Tour: The Cemetery

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This post is part of a series. To see all the buildings I visited on the Willard Tour click the links below.


The final stop on our tour was the Cemetery where 5,776 Willard patients have been buried. For most patients treatment at Willard resulted in a stay for the rest of their days. There were many reasons for burial in the Willard Cemetery, some patients had no family to claim their remains, other’s families could not afford to transport and bury their family member,  and at a time with great stigma attached to mental illness, other’s may have been to ashamed.

At first glance the the cemetery looks more like a hay field than a final resting place for 5,776  departed souls.


There are very few visible markers, many have been removed, some are plaques set in a concrete plug that sit flush with the ground and are covered with grass, others have survived simply because a hedgerow grew up into trees around them, making mowing no longer an issue.

While some lay in unmarked graves those with a marker are recognized simply by a number.

Willard Cemetery marker



It is hard to explain what it is like to stand in a field you know is the final resting place for 5,776 people who were institutionalized at Willard and yet see no visible memorial of their life. In life they carried the burden of mental illness, developmental delays, epilepsy, depression and the stigma attached to those conditions at the time. In death they are remembered simply as a number.

Under State and Federal laws patient records and health information must remain confidential. The graves are numbered to protect the privacy of the patient and their families.  

I get the privacy thing, but I still have a hard time reconciling the unmarked and numbered graves, and I am not alone in this.

I  had a chance to speak with Colleen Kelly Spellacy from Waterloo who is leading the Willard Cemetery Memorial Project, a project that hopes to clean up the cemetery and place proper markers listing the patients buried at the Willard Cemetery.  After reading the book The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic  Colleen  felt compelled to rectify the situation of  patients buried with no name and no markers.

While Colleen continues to petition and appeal to the Office of Mental Health to release the  names of the people buried at Willard  she and the group has already made improvements to the cemetery.  They have placed a large boulder marking the location of  Lawrence Mochas’s shack.


mug-lawrenceAn immigrant, Lawrence Mocha became a window washer at Bellevue Hospital in New York City until he was taken inside the Manhattan mental institution for being “loud, boisterous, singing, shouting, praying, claiming to hear the voice of God.”  He was sent to Willard in 1918, where he became the grave digger and maintained the cemetery grounds.  Lawrence spent 50 years at Willard digging graves, it is estimated he dug over 900 graves.

He too now lies in a numbered grave in the same cemetery he took care of.

Colleen told me she could face arrest if a plaque was placed on the boulder memorializing Lawrence and his work at Willard Cemetery, even though his name and life story are all public record now.

Colleen’s dedication and passion is inspiring.  She and her team of volunteers have worked tirelessly to bring dignity to the departed souls of Willard. The group’s work speaks for it’s self saying;  you are not forgotten, your life had value,  this place is important.

Willard Cemetary

Read more:

About Lawrence Mocha :

About the Willard Cemetery Memorial Project


This post is part of a series. To see all the buildings I visited on the Willard Tour click the links below.

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  1. In 1973 I was in charge of burial detail from time to time. Before we started I had to go up to the administration building to get the time capsule that was to go in to the casket…….