Shelves of forgotten souls

From the Los Angeles Times, May 14, 2011

In Building 60 at Oregon State Hospital, thousands of copper canisters of cremated remains sat unclaimed, identified only by a number. In recent years, measures have been taken to reunite relatives with their lost loved ones.

The two copper canisters once shared the darkness of a decaying and abandoned room at Oregon State Hospital with about 3,500 others. Each etched with a distinct number, the containers held the unclaimed ashes of mental patients and others who had lived and died at the hospital and other state institutions.

SEE – Oregon State Hospital patient remains database.

Library of Dust, by David Maisel

Library of Dust, by David Maisel

No. 1864 held the remains of an 11-year-old boy committed as a “feeble-minded epileptic.” He died in 1935.

No. 2664 contained the ashes of a grandfather committed for “senility.” He died in 1941.

The dead remained together for decades in a forgotten isolation perhaps not uncommon to them in life. Then in 2004, state lawmakers and the public learned of the grim cache at the deteriorating hospital, now 128 years old.

Today, No. 1864 and No. 2664 are no longer with the group, the result of one man’s efforts and a push by the hospital and lawmakers to reunite the remains with their families. As the man discovered, recovering these remains can unearth long-hidden memories and guilt, but also bring a measure of closure.

Officials now hope that the launch this year of an online database detailing the 3,476 canisters yet to be claimed will help other relatives reunite, or unite for the first time.

Don Whetsell remembers little of his older brother, Kenneth.

The brothers would sit at the foot of the bay windows in their Warrenton home in northwest Oregon in the 1930s. Painted by moonlight and with their gazes fixed beyond the windowpane, they would point at the light source and call out its name. Only a toddler, Whetsell would yelp “mook,” as his brother, who was seven years older, cackled with laughter.

There were also dark nights when, through the walls, Whetsell could hear Kenneth’s epilepsy taking hold, the disorder quaking him violently.

“Dad would carry Kenny. He’d cry and carry him,” Whetsell said. “There was nothing you could do for him. Just comfort him and carry him.”

Kenneth was sent to Oregon State Hospital in 1934, when he was 10. About a year later, he died there, and was cremated and labeled No. 1864.

Whetsell also remembers little of his grandfather Nathan McComber.

He was a “gruff old man” who would give his grandson a nickel to help sharpen the axe from his days as a railroad worker. When in a good mood, the old man let Whetsell sit in his truck and pretend to drive.

McComber’s mind eventually degenerated to the point that he could not remember his own wife, Zella. One night, a frightened Zella called authorities, who arrested him.

In 1939, a judge committed the 70-year-old to Oregon State Hospital. About two years later, he too died there. He became No. 2664.

“They were there one day and gone the next,” said Whetsell, too young at the time to comprehend where his brother and grandfather had gone.

As Whetsell got older and began asking family members questions, he was often rebuked. “My mom just didn’t like to talk about Kenny, so I just accepted the fact that it was a hurt point for her,” he said.

Whetsell went on with his life.

He left home at age 19 to fight in the Korean War and later sold construction equipment. He married, had three children and eventually retired in the Portland suburb of Tigard as a great-grandfather.

His brother and grandfather were a distant thought in his mind.

To get inside Building 60 at Oregon State Hospital, the tour guide had to search for the key.

It was 2004, and Oregon Senate President Peter Courtney and others were touring the Salem facility after news reports of abuse, neglect and deplorable conditions. They saw dilapidated buildings, leaking roofs, fingernail scratches on walls and pigeon feces littering the campus. Courtney spotted Building 60 — it looked like a shed — and asked to go inside.

“They open this room and it is loaded with dust and dirt, an old rickety table and shelves and shelves of these cans,” Courtney said. “So I asked what they were, and he said, ‘Cremains.’ ”

“I kept looking at can after can. Nothing in my life had prepared me for that. I didn’t believe it,” he said.

Many of the canisters were corroded, some tinted green from oxidation, some fused together from water damage. Though the majority contained the remains of mental patients from Oregon State Hospital, others held the ashes of prison inmates and of patients from four medical facilities, including Oregon State Tuberculosis Hospital.

Oregon State Hospital opened as the Oregon State Insane Asylum in 1883. At its peak in the 1950s, it housed more than 3,000 patients. The 1975 film “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” was filmed there.

But in the 1970s, with a push for more community-based care across the country, patient levels dropped and the hospital began falling into disrepair.

The cremated remains had been moved about the campus over the years and eventually landed in Building 60. After their discovery, they were viewed as a symbol of all that was wrong with the state’s mental health system and were a catalyst for securing $459 million from the Legislature for new state hospitals in Salem and nearby Junction City.

Patients began moving into the new 620-bed facility in Salem in February. Built on the same grounds, it has both new and refurbished buildings.

“They are the reason for the awakening of Oregon to the tragedies of the past,” Courtney said. “It’s all because of the ‘Room of Forgotten Souls.’ ”

In 2005, a then 73-year-old Don Whetsell was perusing the Oregonian newspaper when he came across an article chronicling a man’s attempts to recover the cremated remains of his grandmother from the hospital.

The story triggered something in Whetsell. He knew that his brother and grandfather had also died there. Then it hit him: He couldn’t remember a funeral or ever leaving flowers atop their headstones. He realized he didn’t know if they even had graves.

“I thought, ‘Gosh, they may be there,’ ” he said. “I told myself that if they were there, I was going to find them.”

In 2007, lawmakers passed legislation making it easier for people to learn whether family members were among the unclaimed remains. The measure exempted the list of the dead from privacy laws, making the information easily available, and paved the way for the creation of the online database.

Before the law, claiming remains was a cumbersome process. Family members had to prove they were related to a deceased patient before officials could reveal information. Since 2005, 139 remains have been claimed, including 19 since the database went online at the end of January.

The copper canisters are now kept in black plastic containers and stored in a room next to the basement offices of the hospital’s records service, which operates the database.

Sometime next year, the remains are scheduled to be moved again, this time into a memorial on the grounds. Plans are far from being finalized, but architects intend to incorporate Building 60 into the design, said Daniel Mihalyo, whose firm, Lead Pencil Studio, was hired to create the memorial.

Families would still be able to recover the remains of relatives. Mihalyo envisions surrounding Building 60 with a garden and hopes to house the remains in personalized, handmade vessels, rather than the machine-made copper canisters.

“People will leave with a sense that the unclaimed remains of the individual will be looked after for as long as it takes,” Mihalyo said.

Don Whetsell’s phone rang. It was the Oregon State Hospital records service.

It was 2009, four years after Whetsell had read the article about the grandmother’s remains. A series of health problems had delayed his search for his relatives, but he had recovered and submitted the paperwork.

There was news: The remains of his brother and grandfather were there.

He teetered between smiles and tears. “I felt sad and maybe a little guilty that I hadn’t pursued it before this time,” he said. “I hadn’t even wondered about where they were.”

Whetsell saved money for a plot and buried his grandfather’s ashes along the Oregon coast next to his grandmother, “where he belonged,” he said. He hopes to save enough to bury his brother by August, next to their parents’ grave in Tillamook.

“If I can do it now, it will make up for us not doing it when we should have,” he said. He doesn’t know why his family never claimed the ashes, though he remembers that his family lived in poverty at the time.

On a recent afternoon, Whetsell rose to his tiptoes to retrieve the black container marked No. 1864 from his bedroom closet. He sat at his dining room table, removed the copper canister and placed it softly on the table. He gingerly took a sip of coffee as his eyes welled up.

“You can’t imagine — even with Kenny being gone that long and me being so much younger and not having that much life with him,” then he paused, staring at the urn. “How much you can love someone like that.”