It’s hard to imagine now that, less than two decades ago, the old mental hospital cemeteries on the Ridges were both poorly-maintained and desecrated. Trees, brush and trash had been allowed to encroach from all sides. Hidden by the mess, pieces of a human skeleton had been disinterred by a groundhog. Stones had been torn up, thrown aside or, at the Tower Cemetery, even used to make “witches circles.” And that cemetery had been a favorite venue for Halloween parties thrown by OU student organizations. But, no longer:
Beginning in 2000, the Ridges Cemeteries Committee has worked to refurbish and beautify the cemeteries and, in so doing, restore dignity to the deceased and fight stigma against their living counterparts. Since 2005, the Committee has made sure that Memorial Day is celebrated there, too. Indeed, there have been ceremonies at all three cemeteries. In recent years, wreaths have been placed to emphasize the humanity of the deceased.
The 2016 ceremony, which took place under a large tent at the old Tower Cemetery, was very moving. The cemetery itself had been beautifully manicured by both Ohio University and ABH lawn crews. The weather was perfect and the event drew a large turnout. From their vantage point at the top of the hill, attendees could gaze down on the now beautiful 19th century cemetery before them.
Each of this year’s speakers had a special interest in mental illness. Mayor Steve Patterson – also a member of the Athens Disabilities Commission – gave the opening statement. Episcopal Priest Deborah Woolsey – previously involved with a NAMI in Wisconsin – read from the Book of Common Prayers. And Judge George McCarthy – who created and presides over a special docket Veterans Court – gave a eulogy for a previously-forgotten veteran, Civil War soldier John Meek.
This year’s ceremony had all the “bells and whistles.” A wreath was laid at Private Meek’s grave. An Athens/Albany VFW Honor Guard did the wreath laying and fired a 21-gun salute. The Aretha Franklin-like voce of Sharell Arocho rocked the hills with the National Anthem, Amazing Grace and the Battle Hymn of the Republic. And Vietnam veteran Caroline Cade did taps.
As in the past this stigma-buster was given prominent coverage by the local media – the Athens Messenger and the Athens News.