A CATHARTIC PASTORAL: PILGRIM STATE HOSPITAL CEMETERY, CHRISTMAS EVE MORNING, 2011

A CATHARTIC PASTORAL: PILGRIM STATE HOSPITAL CEMETERY, CHRISTMAS EVE MORNING, 2011
Donald R. Vogel

         Who are more to be pitied, the absent minded living or the forgotten dead? It was a thought I had that unusually warm, Christmas Eve morning I had biked through the rubble and extant facilities of Pilgrim State Psychiatric Center in Brentwood, New York. Count me among the Long Islanders who didn’t know any remnants of what was once the largest nuthouse in the world still existed.  You could call me morbidly curious as well because I had stopped to explore the institution’s ten-acre abandoned cemetery, which is what inspired my question.

        A Google search will reveal the history of the institution with the collegial sounding nickname, Pilgrim State: a city unto itself once housing nearly about 16,000 patients, stewarded by approximately 4,000 employees. It was named for Dr. Charles Pilgrim, a former director of the New York State Mental Health Agency, and not as the hopeful title of John Bunyan’s allegorical tale, Pilgrim’s Progress, might suggest. At the peak of the hospital’s operations, about one in 25 lobotomies in the country were conducted there. I learned this from a grainy TV clip I found which included interviews with “world renowned” psychiatrists, as well as with the lobotomized. Apparently, Pilgrim State was once a trailblazer in that field, which got me wondering how many of the guinea pigs were strewn among the cemetery’s flat overgrown markers. It could very well have been J. Washington #3142 or E. Vasquez #8865.

        Of course, many of us living on Long Island have their own memories of Pilgrim State. If not as a mainstay of the local economy—if you include sister institutions such as Edgewood, Central Islip, and Kings Park hospitals, mental health dwarfed the 30,000 once employed by places like Grumman Aerospace—it was Pilgrim’s partial closing and the thousands of unstable, over medicated individuals dumped into many communities in the 1970’s and 1980’s. No doubt some of those lonely souls ended up in a Potter’s Field somewhere, more anonymous than the acreage lying before me that Holiday morning. My own recollections include a common insult of my elementary school years implying that the taunted, or their designated progenitor, was a product of Pilgrim State.  I also remember my aunt and grandmother working there, one regaling us with the stories the other was too traumatized to tell. They’re both buried someplace I have not been, but their folklore haunts the penal colony architecture of the hospital’s abandoned structures.

        What of the future dead currently glowering out of Pilgrim State’s massive operational facilities?

        Well, it being Christmas Eve morning, I wondered what madness, induced or otherwise, meant to the lives of Pilgrim State’s interred. Was eternity something forgotten or erased before death? A moot question, I suppose. Maybe the better question was: what should the forgotten dead mean? The immediate answer is ‘nothing.’ Pilgrim State Cemetery is to be developed by a local commercial interest. (I can’t help but think of the ending of ‘Poltergeist’ as the outcome of that: bodies popping up from the ground in protest of the suburban dream). Here’s what came to mind as the crows cawed over me in that field Edgar Allen Poe would have loved: let’s save those souls post-mortem, and in doing so, save something of ourselves in the process.

        If there could be but one resurrection, I wouldn’t opt for the one proposed by the Nazarene. By nature, He would be compelled to judge them by the truth of their lives, and they deserve better. May He forgive me, but I suggest a new myth; something poetic. Robert Frost might be a place to start. He was good at mythmaking, but that was more about himself being the Yankee Poet. Besides, this requires something less bucolic but equally resonant as “stopping by woods one snowy evening.” I think it’s time to forget what Edgar Allen Poe might love about Pilgrim’s cemetery and rattle the bones of Edgar Lee Masters for another Spoon River Anthology. With all due respect to the tombs of unknown soldiers everywhere, let’s create Spoon River identities for the conscripts who fought and lost the battle of life.

        For example, we can re-cast the news clip I mentioned before. Instead of a baritone narrating over black and white footage of zombies in hospital robes, replace it with verse fit for the Saturday Evening Post. I invoke you, Edgar Lee, pick any life, and immortalize it. So, instead of Emily being the deviant black sheep of a family committed and forgotten make her the beautiful eccentric whose expressive eyes defied rational probing or something like that. Edgar Lee, you’re the poet, I’m not. Although the world would be a better place if even half of us could be born again to poetry.

        None of this helps. I am still haunted by that place which, despite my ruminations, has indeed experienced a bit of its own resurrection, as some holes and broken head stones I had located would indicate. Were the open graves the victims of some morbid rite of passage conducted by the kids whose graffiti marks Pilgrim State’s derelict buildings? Perhaps Christ took pity and came early. Grounding myself in reality, my hope would be that some relatives, instead, sought to save them from relinquishment and transferred those bodies to a family plot with name, place, and meaning. Or, I could just believe that their zombies lurk in the nearby woods.  Sorry, that’s Edgar Allen’s influence again.

        Whatever. Only a sense of place and the sacred can diffuse our devolution. The plight of those people isn’t progress, not in the lives they endured and especially not now. If there is to be evolution, let it be in the heart and not the head, which means dubbing this cemetery “Spoon River.” Let’s reify this new myth and save it for latter generations to ponder and debate. If you’ve viewed that news clip on lobotomies, you would understand why this is my proclamation. If we do it right and become a self-fulfilling prophecy of soul over intellect, we might at least give some attention to the current institutionalized. I just wish this was my thought when I got back on my bike and took a shortcut to Christmas cheer over the bumps of the forgotten.

©2012 This work is the property of the author.

  1. MM welcomes Donald R. Vogel. I was impressed by his use of language and the depth and intelligence with which he conveyed his admirable thoughts.

  2. Nice work Don.

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