IMAGE: Unclaimed urn
Greg Wahl Stephens  /  AP
Joni De Trant, director of medical records at the Oregon State Hospital, examines one of the more than 3,000 urns containing the unclaimed ashes of deceased patients.
updated 1/17/2007 7:17:32 PM ET 2007-01-18T00:17:32

Oregon’s state-run mental hospital is famous as the place where “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” was filmed. But there is another sad side to the crumbling old hospital, one that’s fact, not fiction.

From the early 1900s to the 1970s, the unclaimed bodies of 3,600 mental patients were cremated, and the remains were put in copper canisters and placed in storage.

Deciding that the remains deserve more dignified treatment, state officials have been trying to find relatives of the patients. But they have been hindered by privacy laws that protect patients’ rights, even after they are long dead.

On Wednesday, a state Senate committee endorsed a bill aimed at removing that obstacle. If it becomes law, as expected, state officials will be required to disclose the names and dates of birth and death to anyone who thinks a relative might be among those whose remains are in the canisters.

Currently, people making such inquiries have to prove a relationship with a patient with hard evidence such as a death certificate or other genealogical documents before the state can help them.

Making amends
About 60 people have tried to reclaim their relatives’ remains in the past two years. But Senate President Peter Courtney and other backers of the bill said the state needs to do more to help people obtain their loved ones’ remains for a proper burial.

Courtney called the bill a chance for the state to make amends for the disrespectful treatment of the 3,600 patients.

“This is about unfinished business,” he said. “We’re trying to make up for something that happened in the past.”

That so many of the remains went unclaimed underscores the stigma that was attached to mental illness during the 20th century. Many families were ashamed of having a relative in the state hospital and made no attempt to claim the ashes.

But now, people are coming forward.

“That’s symbolic of changing public attitudes about mental illness,” Courtney said.

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From black plastic boxes to proper burial
Until the early 1900s, the unclaimed bodies of patients were buried in a cemetery. In 1913, the Legislature decided it needed the land and ordered the hospital to build a crematorium, exhume all bodies from the cemetery and incinerate them.

The remains were placed in the welded copper cans and stored in a hospital basement for more than six decades. They were moved to an underground vault in 1976, then transferred four years ago to the abandoned storage building.

Because many of the canisters have corroded over the years, they have been placed in black plastic boxes and stacked on shelves at the hospital.

Legislators, mental health advocates and others are working to find a proper burial place and possibly a memorial for those patients whose ashes go unclaimed.

There are no names on the urns, only numbers that correspond to names in the hospital’s records. But as many as a quarter of the 3,600 sets of remains cannot be identified, hospital officials said.

The cremation policy at the hospital was halted in the 1970s. Unclaimed bodies are now sent to funeral homes for burial.

Gina Nikkel, a mental health activist, called the bill a “great stigma buster.”

“It used to be that people put their family members away in the state hospital, and didn’t want to talk a lot about where they had gone,” said Nikkel, head of the Association of Oregon Community Mental Health Programs.

“This bill is part of an effort to get the patients’ dignity back, and to shine a light on the fact that mental illness is a brain disease. It’s nothing to be ashamed of.”

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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