FIRTH — Longtime Firth resident Deena Surerus, who recently moved to Shelley, has seen miracles happen. She recovered from a life-threatening heart condition thanks to a rarely-performed surgery in 2017. Her late friend, Tracey Sessions, nursed her through the recovery. The two became friends while working at State Hospital South in Blackfoot.
Surerus also lives with rheumatoid arthritis but is determined, through treatment, to be the master of her own life. She often enjoys snowshoeing, hiking, and camping and believes an active lifestyle will extend her years.
Surerus is a treatment coordinator and nurse at State Hospital South. Throughout her 20 years there, she learned to care for and love the patients that many others have written off. Now she is working to fulfill her late friend’s dream of revitalizing the hospital’s cemetery.
Sessions became hospital administrator in 2008. As administrator, she learned that over the last 130 years, nearly 1,000 people died while patients at the institution.
The hospital originated in 1886 as the Idaho Insane Asylum. The name was changed in 1931. over the years deceased psychiatric patients, when no family claimed their bodies, were laid to rest quietly in a cemetery near the hospital. However, few people even know it exists.
Because of time and neglect, many of the grave markers degraded or were vandalized and the grounds became overgrown with weeds and grass. Few of the headstones were set in cement, so they shifted.
Sessions realized that most of the graves didn’t have a marker of any kind and she made a decision to change that.
The cemetery became a passionate priority for her as she began doing extensive research to identify the graves and formed a vision for the property.
In 2009, she was able to get enough money to replace the barbed-wire fence with a chain-link fence, install a water system, and put in a small “contemplation pad” with two benches.
She raised money in all sorts of ways and sought out volunteers to help, but her biggest supporters were her husband Jim Sessions, who is a clinical supervisor at the hospital, Surerus and their colleague Cindy Goff.
Jim said every time there is a workday at the cemetery he, Surerus and Goff are there. Fortunately, other volunteers sometimes join them.
“Everything we have done is through donations and volunteers,” Surerus said.
In 2019, two years after she retired as administrator, the unthinkable happened when Tracey passed away from pancreatic cancer, but her husband and friends did not want to see her beloved project stall. She had devoted her career to improving the lives of individuals with a mental illness. She believed they deserved to be remembered with dignity.
Tracey wanted a headstone for every grave. She believed they deserved a beautiful place to honor their memory.
Since 2012, enough money has been raised to buy markers for each grave, 998 in all. Although some have only a name and a death date.
“Only 15 of the markers were purchased by the families of the deceased,” Jim said. “The last two people were buried here in 2020 when their family couldn’t or wouldn’t take care of their final expenses. Going forward, anyone who passes away here will be cremated. Their remains will be placed here and their names will be displayed on a memorial wall.”
In 2020, more than 136 additional graves had markers set in cement, leaving 755 to go.
The small crew has leveled each site, dug out the grass for each marker, built forms for the cement, mixed the concrete in a small mixer with a generator (as there is no electricity) and carefully placed each headstone. In addition, several large poplar trees were removed, 20 new trees were planted, and over 700 feet of sidewalk paths were poured. The Blackfoot High School football team cleared weeds along the road and in the parking lot and cleaned headstones.
“I’d go after work and load 50 to 80 lbs bags of dry cement on the truck or dig out the spaces for about 18 to 20 headstones. Nearly every weekend in summer, we were at the cemetery. I can tell you it is a ton of work and when we go home, we are exhausted, but I love every ounce of it,” Surerus said. “I just have such a peaceful feeling there.”
The goal for 2021 is to place another 150 grave markers, make a new sign for the cemetery that can be seen from the road and plant the flowerbeds. The seeds have already arrived and the group waits excitedly for spring.
To raise additional funds, they plan to raffle a quilt Tracey made and a fun run is planned for August if the pandemic allows it. Plans also are to install a plot map, repaint the benches and the sign on the contemplation pad, and install tree rings.
Jim said he estimates it will take about six years to complete the project.
“It takes us a full day of hard work to place 30 headstones but it is very satisfying,” Jim said. “My wife was just a wonderful person and I feel close to her here.”
He pointed out that the new Idaho State Veterans Cemetery will be located just east of the State Hospital South Cemetery. In the future, he hopes to have new fencing installed to match what is planned for the veterans’ cemetery. That is an expense for which the hospital will pay. He also hopes to pave the parking lot.
Progress is posted on Facebook on the Tracey Sessions Memorial Project page. Although the group has not formalized itself as a non-profit organization, they have no overhead, as nobody is paid for their time.
“Every penny goes to the costs of the improvements,” Sessions said.
There will soon be a work schedule and dates for needed volunteers.
If you would like to volunteer or donate to the Blackfoot South Cemetery, call Jim Sessions at (208) 569-0967.