Cemetery marks graves only by number

VARYSBURG, N.Y. (WIVB) – On a back road in the Wyoming County Town of Orangeville is a burial place for people marked only by numbers.

“This is sort of a lonely place. The people buried here, they were left alone. They were forgotten,” said Shawn Cunningham, chief financial officer for Suburban Adult Services, Inc. (SASI)

More than 300 people who lived at the old Wyoming County Home and Insane Asylum, which opened in 1843, died there.

“They were usually ones that didn’t have any family member either able to or willing to bury them,” said Wyoming County historian Doris Bannister.

Up until the 1950s, some residents were still buried at the cemetery by number. Through the 1970s, 80s and 90s you would barely have been able to tell people had been buried there.

“It was in really bad shape… overgrown, you could hardly see anything. There was garbage in here,” said Cunningham.

About 10 years ago, he started turning this forgotten resting place into a project for the his clients, adults with developmental disabilities.

Mark Cordz also works for SASI.

“We came out here and worked rain or shine cutting weeds, cutting trees down. There were woodchuck holes throughout that we filled in. Wherever there were pieces of headstones, we would make a new stone out of concrete.”

It took them almost three years to get it in shape. SASI client Larry Bobbitt says, “We [did it] like a team.” Brian Chadwick learned to use a power mower here, and now has a paying job as a landscaper.

“I think it’s great, and I think it’s great that SASI’s able to do it because there’s a correlation there,” said Bannister.

The correlation is how society deals with the developmentally disabled now compared to a hundred years ago, when even state records referred to some of those in the Wyoming County Home as “feeble-minded or idiots.” It went on to say, “these defectives are distributed through the county…their presence is always undesirable.”

Cordz says society has progressed quite a bit.

“Some of the individuals that as we’ve come out here over the years have made comments about that you know like, ‘Wow, 100 years ago I might’ve been here.’”

The Wyoming County historian has been sifting through old records to try to match names to the numbers on these headstones. She believes most of the them correctly match up, but not all of them. Bannister says there are still quite a few discrepancies.

“I don’t want somebody to say Joe Smith is buried in grave two when Joe Smith is buried in grave 12.”

Cunningham says he has considered putting up a bulletin board of some type with the list of names on it.

“The ultimate goal we would love to do is to erect some sort of monument and have the names engraved. It would take grants and some fundraising and community support for us to do that.”

For now they’ve created their own sign, marking the burial place that they’ve landscaped for everyone to see.

Cunningham summarizes the effort this way:

“The first time that we came out, they said, ‘Why are we doing this?’ And my response was, ‘We’re doing this because these are people that have been forgotten, and we’re doing this because people shouldn’t be forgotten, and maybe someday people will remember that we did this.’”

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