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Indignity's Shelf Will Not Remain Urns' Final Stop

11 Feb 2005

By Michelle Roberts

Summary: Lawmakers move to pay respects to patients left unclaimed at the state hospital after cremation.

By the early 1900s, thousands of mentally ill patients had died anonymously inside Oregon State Hospital in Salem.

Today, the uncollected cremated remains of 3,490 of them are stored in corroding copper canisters. From ceiling to floor, they line dusty shelves near asbestos-abatement manuals kept in an abandoned hospital storage building.

On Thursday, Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, said such "disrespect for the dead" won't stand, and he announced the creation of a legislative work group that will locate an "appropriate resting place" for the urns.

"When you see the cans and their condition and the room they're in, it is a stark commentary on how society views people in this situation and our whole mental health system," Courtney said.

"We're trying to get better, but we have so far to go."

In October, The Oregonian published photos of the copper cans, many of which are dented and fused together from decades of neglect. The photos were part of a series of stories examining unhealthy conditions at the 122-year-old hospital, which is home to more than 740 patients.

Shortly after the series was published, Courtney said he and his staff toured the hospital and the storage building.

"It was pretty upsetting," he said. "I won't deny it."

The work group, which will be led by Sen. Laurie Monnes Anderson, D-Gresham, will begin meeting next month to find a simple but dignified place to inter the remains, Courtney said. The group will include representatives from the Oregon Department of Human Services, which oversees the hospital, mental health advocacy groups, patients and others, including representatives of Lee Mission Cemetery, who have offered to help find a proper resting place for the urns.

The Mental Health Association of Portland, which has begun soliciting private donations for a memorial, also will participate.

Until the early 1900s, unclaimed hospital dead were buried in an asylum cemetery. But between 1913 and 1914, the state decided it needed the land and exhumed the bodies of more than 5,000 patients. All unclaimed remains were cremated, dumped in the crudely welded copper cans and stored in a hospital basement for more than six decades.

In 1976, the urns were moved to a modest, underground memorial on hospital grounds. But water seeped into the vaults, damaging the containers and obscuring most of their paper labels. A few years ago, the hospital unearthed them and stashed them in the storage building. Many cans are labeled with numbers rather than names.

"It's time for recognition of people whose remains were not made a high enough priority before," said Bob Nikkel, who heads mental health and addiction programs for the Department of Human Services.

The work group will meet March 13 and 28 and expects to make its recommendations at a final meeting April 4.

© 2005 Oregonian Publishing Co. All rights reserved. Used with permission of The Oregonian.

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