A forlorn cemetery where the weatherworn tombstones lie flat and bear numbers instead of names was dedicated last week as a sanctuary that state officials vowed to preserve.

Nelson J. Sabatini, the Maryland Secretary of Health and Mental Hygiene, on Friday said the hundreds of people buried at Crownsville Hospital Center would not be forgotten, even if their identities won't ever be known. Founded in 1910 as the Hospital for the Negro Insane, the hospital interred its patients during the early part of the century on a rolling hill on the grounds. But often it didn't mark their names on the tombstones.

No one is entirely sure why the dead were buried anonymously. Some officials thought perhaps the numbers on the tombstones corresponded to those on long-lost patient files. Others, including local historian Janice Hayes-Williams, thought family members did not want it known they had relatives who were mentally ill.

Backed by a team of volunteers, Williams has spent months going through death records, trying to record the names of the people who died at Crownsville.

"Who were these people?" she said earlier this year. "Where did they come from? That's what we're trying to find out."

Over the years, Crownsville's patient population dropped as medicine for mental illness improved and more patients came to be treated in community settings. Last summer, the hospital had just 200 patients, down from a past high population of about 1,300. In July, the state followed through on a proposal by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) and closed the hospital.

But the legislature, lobbied by Hayes-Williams and others, passed a bill to preserve the cemetery. On Friday, a plaque commemorating those who are buried at Crownsville was unveiled at the site. And, in an interview this week, Sabatini said there is a "commitment to preserve and treat this place with dignity and respect."

Now that the hospital has closed, there is also much interest in what may become of the sprawling 1,200-acre campus. The state is studying the property to see if there are any environmental problems there.

If no other state agencies want the property, it could be turned over to the county. County Executive Janet S. Owens (D) has said her office has received a litany of proposed uses for the site off Generals Highway, such as parks and a golf course, shopping centers and affordable housing developments. But nothing, she said, would happen until the studies are done.

Meanwhile, Del. David G. Boschert (R-Anne Arundel) is pushing a plan to transform the campus into a veterans home that would be surrounded by health and medical facilities.

"We don't need to build new buildings," he said. "They are already there. All we have to do is maybe renovate them . . . We have all kinds of opportunities there."