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State hospital dedicates memorial

3,400 cremated between 1913 and 1974, but remains went unclaimed.


by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: PETER WONG - Visitors looked at the new cremains display dedicated Monday morning as part of the new Oregon State Hospital project. The remains of hundreds of hospital patients are part of the state memorial.SALEM — A memorial dedicated Monday recognizes the more than 3,400 people, formerly at the Oregon State Hospital and other institutions, who were cremated by the state but whose remains were never claimed.

“They were unclaimed and unknown, neglected and disrespected for many years,” said Peter Courtney, president of the Oregon Senate. “No more. Not today. Not here. This is a day of respect. This is a day of understanding.”

Courtney was among a group that turned up the more than 3,500 copper canisters containing the cremated remains while on a tour of the hospital a decade ago. That tour of what had been a shed — the “Room of Lost Souls” — not only led to the memorial, but construction of a new 620-bed hospital to replace the original dating back to 1883.

Patients moved into the new hospital in January 2011, slightly more than two years after groundbreaking in 2008.

Courtney said those almost forgotten in death accomplished something for the living.

“Through their sad, tragic lives, they have led us out of the wilderness of mental health,” said Courtney, a Democrat from Salem who led the move for a new hospital with then-House Speaker Karen Minnis, R-Wood Village, in 2005. “They all have a story… Today, they tell a collective story. Without them, we would not be here today. All here — all in Oregon — owe these saints for their suffering.”

Shannon Pullen, a mental health advocate and former executive director of Multnomah NAMI, said much remains to be done in community mental health settings. “Despite the tragedy of this discovery, I believe their lives were not in vain and have started us on this path toward improved treatment of people in Oregon living with mental health issues,” said Pullen, who has a brother in residence at the hospital. “We have come a long way… and we know there is much work before us still.”

Champion of the people

In a 2013 special session, lawmakers at Courtney’s behest earmarked the proceeds from a 10 cent-per-pack increase in cigarette taxes for mental health programs.

The cremains were removed from decaying copper canisters and placed into handmade ceramic urns. Most of the 3,447 urns are displayed in the new memorial, which was once the hospital mortuary built in 1896, and known as Building 60. About two dozen Native American and Sikh urns are not displayed.

The cremations took place between 1913 and 1971.

Except for Alaska and Hawaii, all states are represented among the cremains, plus 44 nations. The majority (2,769) were patients at the hospital; others were at other state institutions, including the former Dammasch State Hospital in Wilsonville. Six infants and 110 military veterans are represented among the urns.

A separate canister represents the 1,566 people who were exhumed from the “Asylum Cemetery,” just north of the current hospital where they were buried between 1883 and 1913, and cremated. There are no records for these unclaimed remains.

“I ask that you keep one thing in mind above all: These are people who at one time in life were part of a family, they had friends, and they were members of their community,” said Greg Roberts, who has been the hospital superintendent since 2010.

Roberts described Courtney as “the champion of people who cannot speak for themselves.”

Designers earn degrees

Money for the memorial was drawn under a 1975 law that sets aside 1 percent of construction or major remodeling of state buildings for artwork, other than prisons.

The total budget for the Oregon State Hospital construction in Salem, and a new 174-bed hospital in Junction City, was $500 million. Patricia Feeny, a spokeswoman for the hospital project, said the 1 percent set-aside also covers artwork elsewhere in the Salem hospital and the Junction City hospital.

The Junction County hospital is expected to be completed by the end of this year, and patients will move in during spring 2015.

The designers were Annie Han and Daniel Mihaylo, who earned their degrees in architecture from the University of Oregon and collaborate as Lead Pencil Studio in Seattle.

“It managed to combine all of our previous training, and many of our personal interests, in working with this scale of architecture on an art project that concerns the emotions of buildings, places and people,” Han said.

The renovated mortuary building is combined with a low wall that surrounds a courtyard and prayer garden. As relatives claim cremains, holes will appear in the wall.

Since the initial reports of cremains back in 2003, less than 200 urns have been claimed.

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