Long-Forgotten Reminders Of the Mentally Ill in Oregon

From the New York Times, March 14, 2005.

Next to the old mortuary, where the dead were once washed and prepared for burial or cremation, is a locked room without a name.

Inside the room, in a dim and dusty corner of one of many abandoned buildings on the decaying campus of the Oregon State Hospital here, are 3,489 copper urns, the shiny metal dull and smeared with corrosion, the canisters turning green.

The urns hold the ashes of mental patients who died here from the late 1880’s to the mid-1970’s. The remains were unclaimed by families who had long abandoned their sick relatives, when they were alive and after they were dead.

The urns have engraved serial numbers pressed into the tops of the cans. The lowest number on the urns still stored in the room is 01, the highest 5,118. Over the decades, about 1,600 families have reclaimed urns containing their relatives’ ashes, but those left are lined up meticulously on wood shelves. Short strips of masking tape with storage information are affixed to each shelf: ”Vault #2, Shelf #36, plus four unmarked urns,” one piece of tattered tape says.

Most of the labels that once displayed the full names of the dead patients have been washed off by water damage or peeled away by time. Still, a few frayed labels are legible: among the urns stored on one shelf are a Bess, a Ben and an Andrew.

The cremains, as hospital officials refer to them, were as forgotten for more than a century as the patients inside the urns and have only recently caught the attention of Oregon lawmakers and mental health advocates, who on Monday were scheduled to gather here in Salem to discuss a privately financed memorial and proper burial ground for the urns. Officials at the hospital have access to medical records of the patients in the urns and are making a new effort to reach relatives.

”The story about the cremains is in large part a metaphor of what has happened here in terms of the mental health system,” said Dr. Marvin D. Fickle, the hospital’s superintendent, who took over last April. ”That is to say, this has been a system that has been largely ignored and left to its own resources for decades if not longer. And it has now deteriorated to the point where people feel embarrassed and ashamed. It is, of course, ironic that people, in essence, seem more concerned about the dead than the living.”

The fate of the unclaimed mirrors that of those who died over the last century in silence at scores of state mental hospitals across the country. Cemetery restoration or memorial projects have begun since the late 1990’s in at least 18 states, those involved in the projects say. They include one in Georgia, where up to 25,000 patients were buried in rows and rows of numbered graves without names over more than a century in Milledgeville at what is now Central State Hospital there.

In Oregon, hospital officials long knew the ashes were there, and they moved the collection of urns around the 144-acre grounds over the decades, they said, trying to find a better place for them than the storage room where they were shelved in 2000. But with recent public scrutiny of the state hospital’s many other troubles, the urns have now come out of a kind of haunting hiding.

The hospital opened in 1883 as the Oregon State Insane Asylum and was once a national model for mental health care. The 1975 movie ”One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” was filmed there. But when the nation’s state mental hospitals began to empty in the 1970’s as part of a nationwide effort to move patients out of hospitals and into community-based care, the Oregon hospital fell into deep disrepair and suffered from neglect.

Peter Courtney, a Democrat who is president of the Oregon State Senate and a leading critic of the hospital’s conditions, visited the room where the urns are kept last October.

”It was such a stark situation,” he recalled in an interview. ”I remember the day I asked for the key, we were in a tour group, and I had heard this room existed. It was an overcast, eerie day, and all of a sudden you’re in this little room and there they are.”

In the heyday of the Oregon State Hospital in the mid-1950’s, 3,100 patients were treated there, and the landscaped grounds were filled with flowers and ponds.

The hospital now houses about 730 patients in wards that patients and hospital officials say are overcrowded, drafty and decrepit. A majority of the patients were ordered there by the courts, in cases ranging from misdemeanors to murders.

Many of the patients are ready to leave, hospital officials say. But there are few places to send them, mostly, the officials say, because Medicaid cuts have sharply reduced financing of Oregon’s medical system and curtailed options for patients outside the hospital.

Some current patients say the urns, some of which contain the remains of bodies that were cremated after being buried on the hospital campus and later exhumed to make way for a new building, are an especially gruesome reminder that being mentally ill often means feeling neglected.

”If this had happened in a different situation, those remains wouldn’t have been disinterred and stuck on a shelf somewhere in a 123-year-old building,” said Richard Laing, a patient on Ward 50-I at the hospital. He said he was an alcoholic and was ordered, three years ago, to serve 10 years at the hospital after a drunken fight with his landlord. ”The system totally does not care about the patients. They just don’t care.”

Oregon mental health advocates, including Jason Renaud, who founded the Mental Health Association of Portland in January, with the question of how to memorialize the urns at the top of its agenda, have insisted that current and former hospital patients be included in the discussion of how to best pay tribute to the abandoned remains. But at least one former patient said the cremains should stay where they are, in deference to how those patients had truly lived and died — in obscurity.

”To me those cans are a very honest representation of where we were,” said Grace Heckenberg, an advocate who was a patient at the hospital in 1969 and 1970 and said she believes the ashes of one of her ward mates are in an unclaimed urn. ”And to take them out and put them out in some nice cemetery with a nice monument — it would just be a lie, a lie about my life, a lie about his life.”

Meanwhile, as word about the urns has spread, some families who believe their relatives might have died at the hospital have begun to contact hospital officials.

Among those remains claimed recently are those of Gustav E. Metzgus, a sheet metal worker who died of a heart attack on March 18, 1938, at the age of 74. He had spent less than a month there after relatives, concerned because he was wandering the streets and setting fires, committed him. His records describe his diagnosis as ”senility,” said Roseann Ismert, whose husband is the grandson of Mr. Metzgus.

In March, his relatives, who had lost track of his remains over the decades, contacted the hospital and collected his urn, No. 2203. It was a trip Mr. Metzgus’s relatives were too poor to make when he died at the tail end of the Depression, Mrs. Ismert said. On March 6, Mrs. Ismert took the canister with her to church to have it blessed.

Mrs. Ismert and her other relatives sent out a letter to their extended family, saying they had the urn and planned to bury Mr. Metzgus over Memorial Day Weekend at a cemetery near their home in Pistol River, Ore. A gravestone there already bears his name, though he was not buried. It is the same gravestone that marks the death of his wife, who died 30 years after he did.

The letter sent out in March to the family includes a picture of Mr. Metzgus as a young man. He was known in the family as Grandpa Gus.

The letter begins: ”What was lost has now been found.”