Opinion: Return dignity to 1,566 persons, cremated at OSH, whose identities won’t be sought

By William Hughes, Guest Column in The Oregonian, July 11, 2014

UrnsOn July 4, I should have been celebrating. Instead, I was sitting, saddened and appalled, having just read an article in The Oregonian. It reported on newfound evidence of 1,500 citizens and wards of the state of Oregon who have become lost forever. Authorities are unable to answer relatives’ questions about them and show little continued interest into what happened to them. I’m proud to be an Oregonian, but very disheartened that the state cares not to pursue what happened to these lost souls. Please listen to this story. If you feel as I do, and the state continues avoiding the issue, consider helping solve the mystery.

Indignation at finding 3,600 cans of mental patient cremains at the Oregon State Mental Hospital prompted citizens and the Legislature to build two new hospital facilities and a memorial for the cremains. Half of these cremains were thought to be patients who had died between 1883 and 1914 and who had been buried on state property. All were exhumed between 1913-1914 and cremated so the property could be developed. In 1959, headstones from the cemetery were found dumped on a nearby farm. However, none of the deceased patients were accounted for in the 3,600 cremains originally found. The patients’ fate is now a cold case.

When I showed this article to a younger person, he commented, why care? They are long gone, and their relatives, too. I feel differently. Maybe it’s my age. I’m 71, and that puts me closer to the end than the start. This promotes thoughts of burial or cremation. Where do I want my remains to be? Society affirms our dignity and responsibility in making such decisions.

Well, those lost mental patients couldn’t make those decisions. They were left to the state. And the state failed their responsibility to them.

That’s just not right. This bothers me to tears. It’s hard to put into words. Where is the dignity of it? I know it’s there, like the argument of whether a tree falling in the forest makes a sound if nobody is around. Do you hear the loss of dignity in this story?

On Monday, July 7, there was a dedication ceremony for the Oregon State Hospital Cremains Memorial. I attended. state Sen. Peter Courtney acknowledged the newly discovered missing cremains, which number 1,566. He said there would be a canister or memorial urn placed at the OSH Cremains Memorial to represent these lost souls and expressed his desire that answers would be found about their loss. Acknowledging the loss of these cremains is the first step toward returning some of these lost souls dignity.

A state researcher at the ceremony told me they felt they had applied diligent effort and time in pursuing this mystery. They now classify it as a cold case and they will not continue searching.

I’m moved to do more. The memorial was one of the most moving and dignified I have ever seen. It is a must see, if you are as moved by this mystery as I am. It cries out for continued research and possible solution. It is time for a citizen committee to pursue closure. There must be some volunteers with expertise here in Oregon who would be welling to step up and help. One of these lost souls may be a relative of yours or mine.

Please contact me cremainsearch@frontier.com. Let’s see if we can make a difference.

William Hughes, a retired veterinarian, lives in Beaverton.