Willard Cemetery, a 30-acre stretch of land, rises from the Ovid Landing on Seneca Lake in Willard and overlooks the very place where the first patient, Mary Rote, was brought in by boat to the Willard Asylum.

At the time of her arrival in 1869, the cemetery did not exist. However, today it is the burial place of 5,776 patients in unnamed graves. It appears as a large empty meadow of blowing grasses, except for the Civil War headstones and metal number markers embedded in the ground for the forgotten patients.

The 45-page “History of the Willard Asylum For the Insane,” written in 1978 by Dr. Robert Doran, never mentions the cemetery, so I was curious about when and how the present burial ground northwest of Ovid Landing came to be.

After several hours in the Seneca County Clerk’s office I found the deed for the present Willard burial ground with the help of Walt Gable, Seneca County historian. Tucked away in the Grantee Index, among the properties sold to the State of New York, was a reference to Apollos Rising. Since the Rising Cemetery is next to the present day Willard Cemetery I thought this might be a possibility. There in Deed Book Number 87 I found the Apollos Rising deed, who sold his “twenty-nine and one fourth acres of land” in the town of Romulus to the State of New York in 1875.

This parcel, in the military lot number 94, rises from the east shore of Seneca Lake and includes “up the side of the ravine south.” While the deed language is primitive, it reflects the writing of a time gone by that carefully crafted the summary of a land parcel in elegant cursive. Mike Karlsen, the tax map technician for Seneca County, read the deed and mapped it out on Google Earth. It showed the present 30 acres of the Willard Cemetery.     

The first burial for the Asylum was in 1870, yet the date of the Apollos Rising deed is 1875 — confirming that the early burials were not on this property. In fact, the first five years of burials took place behind The Branch, which was the original building of the New York State Agricultural College. Those graves were later disinterred and brought to the Rising property.

During the interval of 125 years from 1875 until the last burial in 2000, the cemetery was developed with plot markers and row markers and divided into plots that reflected religious beliefs.

There are two Jewish sections. One plot has a single memorial stating, “In remembrance of the Jewish residents buried at Willard Psychiatric Center 1870-1992 Dedicated Spring 1994.” The other plots, both Catholic and Protestant, have no marked recognition of their existence. The old cemetery map shows proposed plans for future Catholic and future Protestant plots.

The Rev. John Kotun relayed to me that during his 30 years at Willard there was always an appropriate religious service for each of the deceased before burial. He officiated at about 30 burials during his early years at Willard. At the time of burial, numbered markers made in the Asylum foundry were placed above the graves. At the time of Willard Hospital’s closing, the markers were removed to make it easy for mowing. The identifying numbers were in most cases replaced with numbers flush with the ground, but not all were replaced.

The original cemetery on the map is adjacent to the Civil War Memorials. It was here in the original plot that Lawrence Mochi worked as a master gravedigger for 30 years. He entered Willard Asylum as a patient in 1916 and by 1937 was undeniably an important part of the staff. Mochi found himself restored by engaging in meaningful and important work. It was recorded in Mochi’s 1951 medical record that he had dug more than 900 graves. Mochi worked everyday at the cemetery and even built a shack where he stayed during good weather. He maintained meticulous grounds and precise graves right up to his death at age 90 in 1968. He is buried in this sacred ground, but where his remains are laid to rest is unknown.

Since 1995, the cemetery has lacked the concern and care that Mochi gave it. The Willard Cemetery Memorial Project Committee has begun efforts to change that. In 2011, the Office of Mental Health sent a representative to speak to the community about what it could do to help. In the meantime, the Committee has had a sign installed that identifies the cemetery’s presence in the community.

The sweeping goal is to memorialize the persons buried there with names. This we shall do.   

Spellecy, of Waterloo, is a former schoolteacher. After reading “The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases From A State Hospital Attic,” Spellecy has been working for two years on restoring the former asylum’s burial grounds. For more information visit www.willardcemeterymemorialproject.com.

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