Memorial Day Ceremony Remembers Asylum Residents

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Serving as a means of busting the stigma carried with mental illness, the 2015 Memorial Day Ceremony at The Ridges’ Tower Cemetery was somber with remembrance but also featured a number of smiles and a backdrop of determination.

This year’s ceremony was presented by the combined efforts of the Athens Chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and the Ridges Cemeteries Committee. It was mastered by Tom Walker, a member of NAMI, with guest speakers, 317 Board CEO Earl Cecil and State Representative Debbie Phillips.

Sharell Arocho set the tone of the ceremony with her rendition of the “National Anthem” and also continued to lay the atmosphere for the program throughout by singing “Amazing Grace” and “Swing Low Sweet Chariot.” Caroline Cade closed with taps.

The ceremony honored both former resident Sarah Boyd and 32 unclaimed headstones.

Not much is known of Boyd, as stated in a eulogy delivered by Phillips. Boyd was born in 1842 and contracted a mental illness in 1879. Delusional and violent behavior saw her admitted to the Athens Lunatic Asylum.

“Had modern medicine existed at the time, the demons troubling poor Sarah could probably have been slain and she might well have returned to her family to live out a normal life,” Phillips read.

More than a dozen descendants of Boyd’s attended the ceremony including Michael Pierson and Jacob Hamilton. Pierson and Hamilton had the honor of carrying a wreath of roses to Boyd’s grave where the rest of the family awaited. Pictures were taken and words of pride were spoken.

Boyd was once an unmarked grave. That is until her great great grandsons John and Dave Wills, along with Nancy Lyons, were able to determine her grave number. It took them six years to go through the entire process.

Another act of remembrance Monday came in the form of a wreath-placing at the foot of 32 headstones. Those headstones belong to some of the first men interred in the cemetery, although their exact locations are not yet known. Greg Polzer and Walker continue to work to ascertain those final resting places.

The quote on a plaque identifying those honorees simply states, “Remember us for we too have lived, loved and laughed.”

Cecil spoke on addressing the problem of stigmas surrounding those with mental illness. He said one in five Americans have a mental illness and that even though most are treatable, many do not disclose those illnesses due to the stigma attached.

“Many … are afraid to come out of the closet about their affliction for fear of being seen as deranged, dangerous, unreliable or simply lesser, ” Cecil said. “Accordingly, they are often hesitant to accept the treatment and the support they need.”

Cecil declared that the ceremony’s existence should send a clear message that the nearly 2,000 persons buried in the cemeteries of The Ridges were human beings, just like any other human being. Included in those ranks are more than 60 U.S. veterans who were labeled as mentally ill with symptoms that are today affiliated as post-traumatic stress disorder.

Tower Drive Cemetery was created for deceased patients of the asylum whose families did not claim their bodies. The last burial made in the cemetery was in 1914. Other cemeteries opened at The Ridges continued burial until 1972.