Ridges Ceremony Pays Tribute To Those With Mental Illness

By
Sarah Hawley - Athens Messenger staff reporter


Updated Tue, May 27, 2014 6:19 am
Photo Credit: 
Messenger photo
Jesse C. Sparks’ grave decorated with wreath

"Remember us for we too have lived, loved and laughed.”

That statement — which was originally placed on a plaque outside a restored mental hospital cemetery in Massachusetts — was one of the many sentiments expressed during a Memorial Day ceremony organized by the local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).

As part of the service, a wreath was placed on the grave of Jesse C. Sparks, a World War I veteran, and Pearl Mae Hanley-Coakley.

NAMI Ohio CEO Terry Russell gave the main address, speaking about the stigma of mental health and the need to restore dignity and personhood to those who have been the victim of mental illnesses such as post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Russell stated that he came to the ceremony to give the address with regard to “restoring the dignity and personhood of individuals that live in these hallowed grounds.”

“This cemetery is from an era that was not so complex. It’s also from an era when information was not easily accessible,” said Russell. “No one cared about the stories of those buried here. Stories could have changed the way people with mental illness were treated. Today, we do have the information available to improve the lives of people with mental illness and yet we know that so many very ill individuals only receive services from their families.”

“The mental illness is the same (today). There are stories behind every one of these people that will never be known,” said Russell. “In my role as the executive director of the National Alliance for Mental Health Ohio, I hear tragic stories of untreated mental illness every day. But the miracle in that is that we are here today remembering those lying in these hallow grounds.”

Russell read a letter written by a soldier, Daniel Summers, who had suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and took his life as a result, feeling that it was the better option. Russell added that 22 veterans take their lives each day.

He concluded by saying this year’s Memorial Day was a day to remember Summers and the others who are in similar situations.

Athens Mayor Paul Wiehl read a eulogy of Sparks before placing a wreath on the grave. Sparks had served in the military from July 1918 to April 1919, when he was honorably discharged.

Sparks’ life after the war showed signs of PTSD, and led to him being admitted to the Ridges Asylum years later.

“Though his grave bears his name and vital dates, Private Sparks’ life and sacrifice for his country are largely forgotten,” read Wiehl. “This ceremony and the placing of a wreath at his grave are a small attempt to correct that anonymity. Thank you, Private Sparks, for the huge, if largely invisible, sacrifice you made for our county.”

State Representative Debbie Phillips read a eulogy of Pearl Mae Hanley-Coakley who died 64 years ago at The Ridges, formerly called the Athens Lunatic Asylum.

“Like Jesse Sparks’ grave, Pearl’s final resting place went largely unnoticed until family genealogist Teresa Clapper made and inquiry in March of last year and came to see it the following Memorial Day. Since then, the grave has been marked with flowers,” read Phillips.

Pearl was admitted to the asylum with Huntington’s disease in her fifties.

Many members of Hanley-Coakley’s family were in attendance for the ceremony, with some assisting in Phillips in the placement of the wreath at the grave site.

Singer Sharell Arocho performed three songs as part of the service. A veterans color guard presented the colors and Vietnam Veteran Caroline Cade played taps.

This is the 11th year for the services held at one of the ceremonies of The Ridges each year.

Tags: