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Friday, September 29, 2023
Mary Ann “Minnie" Gilliland Smart is making her way home to Saskatchewan, Canada, after almost 100 years, thanks to her great-great nephew, David Gilliland's interest in genealogy and the work of an Oregon State Hospital (OSH) volunteer, Phyllis Zegers.
“I was following a rabbit trail trying to piece together a bio about her and came across findagrave.com," Gilliland said. “Phyllis did such a wonderful job on Minnie's bio. It was my first inkling of the connection to OSH and her current situation."
There are thousands of more stories like Minnie's. OSH is the custodian of the cremains of 3,448 people who resided and died at Oregon institutions from 1914 to 1973 and had no one to claim their remains.
Over the years, OSH health information staff and Zegers have helped raise awareness about the directory in an effort to identify people who can claim their relatives' cremains. The hospital holds an annual ceremony in September to honor those who have died and remain interred in the walls of the cremains memorial on the Salem campus. The ceremony is also a time to recognize those who have been reunited with their families.
Volunteer genealogist Phyllis Zegers
This year, 76 cremains were reunited with family members, several of whom attended the ceremony and claimed their relatives' cremains. Those who are unable to attend receive a package with the cremains, the original copper canister that served as an urn and a rubbing of their family member's name and birth and death years from the memorial wall.
Gilliland and his cousin, Rick Ewen decided to make the trek from Saskatchewan to Salem to understand more about what Minnie experienced while a patient from 1930 until her death in 1934.
“It's about honoring Minnie's memory. It seems like the right thing to do," Gilliland said. “We decided early on because there was a repatriation opportunity that we would want to bring her home."
Since 2013, Zegers has helped connect more than 1,100 families.
Zegers' own genealogy research into an ancestor who was admitted to OSH led her to discover the cremains directory. Though her ancestor wasn't cremated at the hospital, Zegers felt drawn to learn more about those who were waiting for their families to find them, find their stories.
“That to me turned out to be more fascinating than my ancestors," Zegers said. “At that point, I thought, 'here are these folks who have been forgotten and they should be honored in some way."
The way she saw to honor them was to research each one and write up their biography on findagrave.com. She quickly realized her efforts were leading families to make connections with the cremains directory. Her volunteer work grew to helping contact families directly through letters, and sometimes phone calls.
Zegers has researched nearly all 3,448 people listed in the cremains directory at least once and over the last three years has looped back with hopes new digitized documents will be available.
With more documents being digitized and interest in genealogy continuing to grow, Zegers knows there's always a chance for new information to be found.
Zegers realizes not everyone may welcome the news of an unclaimed ancestor institutionalized at OSH or other state institutions, including the penitentiary.
“I always do this blessing as I mail the letters," she said. “I say, 'Go in peace. I hope it lands softly.'"
Responses range from a lack of interest to strangers sharing personal revelations about how the news puts their own family history in perspective.
“They share things like, “I've struggled with mental illness and this has been a burden lifted off of me that I didn't realize.' Then, they talk about having the ability to forgive past generations," Zegers said. “Another person told me that they didn't know anything about their grandmother and it helped them understand their father better. 'It helps me understand what I've been dealing with."
For Nancy Battaglia, the letter notifying her that she could be related to a former OSH patient whose cremains had gone unclaimed for more than 40 years was certainly unexpected.
“I never met her or knew she went to the state hospital," Battaglia said of the subject of the letter, her great aunt Adelene Jurvakeinen. “She was my grandmother's sister. I knew her name and that was it."
Battaglia began following up on the resources in the letter – a biography on the site, findagrave.com and a documentary about the cremains of thousands of people who died in state institutions and remain unclaimed.
Her first inclination was to help find a family member more closely related to Jurvakeinen, but after a year of waiting for someone else to come forward, she decided to be the one to claim Jurvakeinen's ashes.
“The bottom line is I couldn't stand (her cremains) sitting there forever. I think she deserves to be honored in some way. She was a life. She mattered," Battaglia said.
Battaglia consulted with her cousins and sisters to find a place to inter their relative's ashes and decided to reunite their great aunt with her parents (Battaglia's great grandparents).
While unexpected, Battaglia said she's grateful to know that one of her own is being taken care of.
“Without Phyllis contacting us, none of us would have known anything about this," she said. “The thought of someone languishing forever does not seem right to me."
That same sentiment drives Zegers to continue with her volunteer work and research.
“It's the worth and dignity of every human being and wanting to honor them," Zegers said. “It's that feeling when I first learned about them. It was before there was much attention at all paid to these folks. There was no memorial. There was very little publicity about them, and I just thought, even if their names are on a website someplace, they're more than just a name and their mental illness or disability or their crime, or whatever got them into the institution they ended up in. They're more than that. I wanted to find what it was."
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