Nearly 1,000 Idahoans died alone and were buried in a forgotten cemetery. Here's how you can help remember them - East Idaho News

Nearly 1,000 Idahoans died alone and were buried in a forgotten cemetery. Here’s how you can help remember them

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BLACKFOOT — On the outskirts of Blackfoot, down Cromwell Lane, is a small cemetery that’s largely been forgotten.

It’s called the State Hospital South Cemetery, and nearly 1,000 men, women and children are buried here. It’s right next to the state-owned psychiatric hospital, which has been around for over 130 years.

“Most people don’t even know there is a cemetery here,” says Blackfoot South Clinical Supervisor Jim Sessions. “People oftentimes don’t want anything to do with things associated with mental illness because it’s just something that’s hard for them to deal with and understand.”

The Idaho Insane Asylum

Idaho Insane Asylum
The Idaho Insane Asylum opened in Blackfoot in 1887. | Courtesy State Hospital South

On July 2, 1886, four years before Idaho was granted statehood, construction was completed for the Idaho Insane Asylum, and 36 inmates were transferred from the Oregon asylum to Blackfoot. This was the first facility designed to serve Idaho’s mentally ill population.

For decades, people could drop family members off at the facility, and the state would care of them. Patients were called “inmates,” and they often died alone in the hospital. When nobody claimed a body, it was wrapped in a white cloth and laid to rest. The burial sites were originally marked by simple concrete stones, but those were destroyed by weather, vandals and time, leaving all the graves unmarked.

The State Hospital South Cemetery was called the Asylum Cemetery until 1931, when the Idaho State Legislature signed an act changing the name.

John Campbell was the first person buried on the property in 1890 – the same year Idaho became a state. Then came Mary Leesman and hundreds of others.

John Campbell headstone
John Campbell was the first person buried in State Hospital South Cemetery in 1890 – the same year Idaho became a state. | Nate Eaton,

We don’t know when John or Mary were born, if they ever married or any details about their lives.

“The records are in some old handwritten journals, and there isn’t much there. For many people, we don’t even have a full name or a date of birth. About the only thing we have is a death date,” Sessions says. “These people were long-term residents at the hospital who had family that basically walked away and didn’t want anything to do with them.”

For decades, psychiatric patients were buried without formal services or funerals. The cemetery became an afterthought – overgrown with grass and weeds.

Honoring the dead

In 2008, Tracey Sessions was appointed administrator of State Hospital South, and everything involving the cemetery changed.

Deena Surerus worked with her and says the administrator made the burial grounds one of her key priorities.

“She was very passionate about working with the mentally ill, and she had been for many, many years,” says Surerus. “Her enthusiasm and excitement and compassion she had for the mentally ill was very contagious, so it was hard not to be involved.”

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Tracey Sessions was appointed State Hospital South Administrator in 2008 and made the cemetery one of her key priorities. | Courtesy Jim Sessions

Tracey Sessions had no budget to clean the cemetery up or pay for improvements, so she began fundraising projects in 2012 and recruited volunteers – including her husband, Jim.

“She wanted to start a project to get headstones for every grave,” Jim says. “There were 996 people buried here and only 15 graves had headstones. She wanted to beautify the cemetery to show respect.”

Tracey helped coordinate donations, raffles, Eagle Scout projects and other events to raise funds for a fence, sprinkler system, decorative gate, signage and a plot sign to identify the location of each grave.

She spent thousands of hours and thousands of donated dollars changing the entire plot of land from a patch of grass to a place of beauty. Every burial plot now has its own headstone, and benches have been installed for visitors to sit and reflect.

Baby Girl Olsen headstone
When Tracey Sessions was appointed hospital administrator, only 15 of 996 burial plots had headstones. She worked to make sure every person received a headstone. | Nate Eaton,

Tracey had so much more she wanted to do at the cemetery but last year, at age 64, she died of pancreatic cancer. She and Jim had been married 30 years, and he knew he had to keep her project going.

“There was so much that she wanted to do here that she didn’t have time to do,” Jim says, holding back tears. “To honor and remember her, I decided to carry it on.”

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Jim and Tracey Sessions | Courtesy Jim Sessions

Honoring Tracey

With the help of Surerus, their colleague, Cindy Goff, and dozens of volunteers, 22 trees have been now planted at the cemetery, and Jim is focused on getting all of the headstones set in concrete. So far, 111 have been completed with a little less than 900 more to go.

“She would always say that she wanted this to be a beautiful place for people to come and visit,” Surerus says. “She also wanted to have respect for the ones that are buried here. It’s so important to fulfill her dream. She deserves that, and she would be proud.”

Hospital patients are still occasionally buried at the cemetery, although the state now cremates their remains. A man and a woman were laid to rest there in July.

Jim is now focused on raising money to put in new fences, sidewalks, a paved parking lot, flower beds and a memorial wall. He’s created the Tracey Sessions Memorial Fund to raise money for the project, and donations are gladly accepted.

Even though his wife is gone, Tracey is not forgotten and thanks to her, Jim, and so many others, the nearly 1,000 people buried at the State Hospital South Cemetery won’t be either.

Our attorneys tell us we need to put this disclaimer in stories involving fundraisers: does not assure that the money deposited to the account will be applied for the benefit of the persons named as beneficiaries.