Monument dedication set for Central State cemetery

A new monument to those buried at the old Central State Hospital will be dedicated.
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Several hundred people buried in a small, long-forgotten west Indianapolis cemetery are finally getting a proper memorial.

Monday, Mayor Greg Ballard will help dedicate a new marble monument at the unnamed cemetery along Tibbs Avenue. It's the final resting place of 389 former patients of Central State Hospital, known as an insane asylum, when it opened in 1848. (It closed in 1994.)

Nearly four years ago, Eyewitness News did a story on the blighted, three-acre parcel. It was overgrown with weeds and covered with trash and downed trees. The grave markers, small concrete slabs, were mostly covered with dirt and grass. The plastic registry listing the names of those buried was falling apart.

Many people were outraged, prompting a volunteer clean-up of the city-owned property (the city took control of the Central State site from the state in 2003.)

Republican City-County Councilor Marilyn Pfisterer led efforts to not only remove debris and clear the grave sites, but to replace the registry.

"When I became aware of the emotion and history involved, I felt it was important to preserve it," she said.

Pfisterer also had a personal connection. Her late husband Clyde was a firefighter for several years at the old Station 4 adjacent to Central State.

"He remembered when patients would come to the fence and ask for help," she said. "They wanted the firefighters to get them out and he would choke up every time he told me that."

Pfisterer began a fundraising drive for a new monument.

Roy Johnson was among the first to donate.

Johnson's grandfather, John Cathcart, was buried in the cemetery after dying in 1930. Johnson said Cathcart, a father of six, was committed to the hospital nine months earlier after becoming sick.

"That's what gets me. People think they were all loonies, but a lot of them were just like my grandfather. He was dumped out there because his wife didn't want to take care of him anymore," he said.

Clutching his grandfather's obituary, he said, "this is the only thing I got. I try to hold on to it."

Johnson never knew Cathcart. He was born a year after his grandfather died.

But after hearing about the condition of the Central State cemetery, he had an engraved tombstone made. He did it for his stepfather, whom he adored.

"There's not enough I can do to thank him for what he done for me and the only way to pay him back is to put a stone on his father's grave," Johnson said.

Pfisterer said, "I'm anxious for him to see the monument. I hope he's pleased."

She said Flanner and Buchanan Funeral Home donated most of the cost of the $10,000 monument. It includes the names of everyone buried at the cemetery and the numbered location of their grave site.

Pfisterer says staff at the Indiana Medical History Museum spent considerable time going through state archives to ensure they had a complete and correct list of everyone buried at the cemetery. She hopes the monument is a sign of respect for those who seldom received it in life.

Johnson, looking at pictures of the monument, found his grandfather's name.

"You can see the names clear. What do I think? I think it's beautiful," he said. "I take my hat off to Flanner and Buchanan."

He and Pfisterer see it as a permanent memorial to the patients who never left and now will never be forgotten.

The dedication is set for 10:30 a.m. Monday, June 2. Johnson said he plans to be there.