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Oregon State Hospital Memorial


Volunteer genealogist reunites families with their past

Phyllis Zegers
Phyllis Zegers
Each year, Oregon State Hospital holds a special ceremony to honor the lives of those who passed away while in residence at Oregon State Hospital and other state institutions in the region, whose cremated remains were never claimed.

One question many people have is, “How have so many families come forward who never did before?" The answer is simple: Phyllis Zegers. For almost seven years, Zegers has worked tirelessly to track down the families of patients whose cremated remains were left at the hospital.

In November 2013, Zegers, a recently retired special education teacher, was doing genealogy for her family and found a distant cousin who was hospitalized and died at OSH in the 1890s. While trying to find out about her, she learned about the unclaimed cremains.

At first, Zegers just wanted to research and honor each person by writing up their biographies and post those online.

“Then I found out, without a lot of effort, I could find living relatives," Zegers says.

She started reaching out to family members.

“At first, I was concerned, because they might find it intrusive or upsetting, but it wasn't a problem," says Zegers. “I got great feedback. People were just really pleased to get this information. They might have heard stories about what happened to grandma or a great uncle, and now they could find out what really happened."

Zegers volunteers her many research hours, finding satisfaction in the outcome of her efforts.

“I love hearing the stories about what's happening in the present-day families," she says.

“Sometimes, I find five to ten people from the same family who never connected with each other and they now hold a family reunion. Or, they learn about a person's mental health issues, and it sheds light on some of the family's current- day mental-health issues. They think, 'Aha! It's not just me.' And some talk to me about how they will perhaps forgive a parent or grandparent because they now understand the issues that person was dealing with."

Helping people connect with long-lost family members, suddenly being able to identify a person in an old photo, or discovering Grandma didn't die in childbirth but was institutionalized, helps people unravel family mysteries, Zegers says.

“Some people I contacted were as close as a sibling to the person who died in the hospital, and they didn't even know. They had a hole in their life, like a big question mark they didn't understand, and now they have an answer. This closes a lot of gaps for people," she says.

Before Zegers began her work in 2013, the hospital had found some relatives when it posted the list of names online. However, the work really took off when Zegers began her research.

“I enjoy it so much. With every person I research, it's like picking up a new book and learning about these fascinating characters. As you study their lives, there are all these plot twists."

Zegers also likens the research to putting together a jigsaw puzzle, adding, “Some pieces aren't available, they're still under the couch, and I'll never find them. I always know I don't have the whole story."

About the Memorial

The Oregon State Hospital is the custodian of the cremated remains of approximately 3,500 people, at the time of writing, who died while living at the hospital and other institutions. These deceased were never claimed by family. Their ashes were held in humble copper urns that had degraded badly over the decades.

For more than six years, the Oregon Arts Commission worked with the Oregon State Hospital Replacement Project, a massive effort to build two new state facilities for mental health care authorized by the Oregon Legislature in 2007. Our task was to help shape a program of art projects for the Salem and Junction City facilities, through Oregon’s Percent for Art in Public Places Program. In our first meeting, Jodie Jones, OSHRP Administrator, talked of the unclaimed remains, and the hospital’s desire to properly memorialize them.

In 1976, the canisters numbered 5,000. In 2007, the hospital was given permission to release the names of the deceased, and to assist families hoping to locate relatives. The newly publicized story of the cremains was central to The Oregonian’s Pulitzer Prize-winning series Oregon’s Forgotten Hospital.

Coverage by The Oregonian and The Statesman Journal brought national attention, including from The New York Times and Los Angeles Times. It also led photographer David Maisel to the hospital, whose book Library of Dust created a ghostly document of the number and condition of the corroding canisters.

The State Hospital was not a stranger to artistic backdrop and scrutiny. It famously served as the set for Milos Forman’s adaptation of Ken Kesey’s novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. That film also brought photojournalist Mary Ellen Mark, who came to Salem in 1974 to photograph the cast and set. After a year of negotiations, Mark was allowed to live on the women’s Ward 81 with writer Karen Folger, resulting in a book of photography and journalism, Ward 81. These efforts, and many others, have served to call national attention to the hospital’s struggles. When I toured the hospital in 2008, it looked very much the same as in these portrayals, which have been part of the story that allows us to conclude a long-called for chapter, that of the unclaimed cremains.

Annie Han and Daniel Mihalyo were selected from an international call to artists for this project. They faced many complexities. The memorial is one of the most important projects in the state’s history, an opportunity to transform a deeply meaningful history into a public memorial of great poignancy and beauty. It was also a project that would navigate many, often conflicting, desires: to create a permanent resting place that also allows for more families to claim cremains; to provide for thoughtful contemplation, but maintain transparency on the high-secu­rity grounds; and to employ the highest aesthetic choices of today, while aging gracefully as it stands for the next hundreds of years. Further, the artists, the Arts Commission and the Replacement Project needed the approval of the Salem Historic Landmarks Commission to complete the alterations to a damaged brick façade of the 1896 structure.

This is not a design problem or an issue of abstraction...or aesthetics. It seems to us that this is an issue of emotional alchemy; the opportunity to accept specific human experience and provide the emotional context for individuals to create personal transformations.

Han and Mihalyo, Application Letter

This project required the unending support of so many disparate communities as it reached completion:

The Hospital Replacement Project; Jodie Jones and Sharon Tucker; Senate President Peter Courtney and his staff; NAMI Oregon and Mental Health America of Oregon; the generosity of the Kohler Factory where Daniel and Annie worked 16-hour days for three months to create the new urns; Western Oregon University students who worked alongside the artists in Salem; and the many individuals who wrote letters of support for the historic preservation portion of the project, including Henry Sayre, Christine D’Arcy, Roger and Bonnie Hull, Kingston Heath, Roger Roper, Doug Macy and numerous Salem neighborhood alliances with whom we met.

Lead Pencil Studio’s memorial is the result of exhaustive re­search and unending commitment to the prime goals of the people and events it represents. Their grounds speak honestly about how these remains were found, while embarking to a more hopeful and open present. As such, it is a retelling of the historic institutional treatment of the most vulnerable in our society. Artists document our cultural ethos and aspirations, and this story is a part of our state’s historic and moral fiber.

Metal filigree sculpture

Metal filigrees represent another building that was attached to Building 60.

In 2004, Senate President Peter Courtney toured the Oregon State Hospital and discovered what would forever change the course of mental health treatment in Oregon. It all started with unlocking the door to what he later would call the “Room of Forgotten Souls.” Inside a small, non-descript hospital building, Senator Courtney discov­ered more than 3,500 copper urns stacked three deep on simple, pine shelves. 

He would later compare the treatment of the urns to the treatment of those with mental illness – neglected and forgotten – and led the charge to secure funding to replace the existing 128-year-old psychiatric hospital with two new hospitals and passed legislation that would allow the state to publish the names of individuals whose urns were in the custody of the Oregon State Hospital for the purposes of reunification and the construction of a memorial for any unclaimed remains.

In 2011 Lead Pencil Studio was selected from a national call for an artist to design a memorial. Their proposal expanded the project scope to include a columbarium wall, a plaza and garden, sculpture and a memorial to house the now-empty original copper urns.

The memorial is built within a relocated and restored 1896 structure known as Building 60, once the hospital pestilence house and morgue. The new courtyard recreates the footprint of a crematorium structure (Building 75) which was once attached to the brick building. A wire filigree sculpture high­lights the former building’s walls and windows. The bench in this courtyard is also artist-made from a tree that stood here. From this courtyard, visitors can view 3,423 copper urns, stacked in sequential rows with empty spots for those that have been claimed by family members.

The ashes from the copper urns were placed in new vessels handmade by the artists inside the memorial’s columbarium wall. The new garden around the memorial provides a tranquil atmosphere and a sense of private enclosure within the hospital grounds.

Close up of columbarium wall

The columbarium wall holds new ceramic canisters bearing ashes and identities, if known.

​These unclaimed remains are those of people who died between 1913 and 1971 in the Salem community or while living or working at Oregon State Hospital, Oregon State Tuberculosis Hospital, Mid-Columbia Hospital, Dammasch State Hospital, Oregon State Penitentiary, Deaconess Hospital and Fairview Training Center.

While the majority of the urns belongs to patients of Oregon State Hospital, there are also five state employees, six infants and one member of the Salem community among them. Patient birth places include 44 countries, 48 states and five who had been born at sea on their way to the United States.

The reason for admission was as varied as their symptoms and diagno­sis, including fanaticism, epilepsy, alcoholism or as recorded in one female patient’s file, “too much marriage.” Once admitted, most patients would often live here until death.

The hospital had its own cemetery and for 30 years, patients and residents of other state institutions were buried there. But cemetery space became scarce and, in 1913, the legislature directed all bodies not claimed to be exhumed and cremated.* Between 1913 and 1971, patients whose bodies were not claimed at the time of death by relatives were also cremated and their remains were placed in these copper urns made by hospital staff.

Among the urns are those of five siblings, a mother and two sons, a father and daughter and two cousins. One of the urns holds the remains of a male patient who came to the hospital at the age of 4. He was prone to rages and had become too much for his family, which included 10 other siblings, to handle. He lived and worked at the hospital and its Cottage Farm until he died in his late 80s.

A number of war veterans are among those housed at this memorial.

Over the years, these urns were moved and stored in multiple locations, including a memorial constructed in the late 1970s. Known as Memorial Circle, it featured underground vaults beneath a flower garden. The vaults, however, were subject to flooding and the urns began to show signs of corrosion. In 2000, they were moved to the now-demolished Building 75.

The memorial was realized and dedicated on July 7, 2014, in a ceremony led by Senator Courtney. “What was once hidden behind locked doors and brick walls is now visible,” he said. “This memorial will remind us of where we’ve been and why we never want to return.”

"'On Decoration Day,' an early-day Oregon Daily Statesman newspaper reported, 'the little inmates of the orphans' home, under the supervision of their matron, gathered a lot of wildflowers and decorated the graves of the insane dead.' ... Like those kindhearted children, Oregonians of the 21st century owe a final 'act of mercy to the unfriended dead.'"

"Elda’s Ashes," The Oregonian, published May 31, 2005

copper urns

Some of the 3,423 copper urns that once held the remains of individuals who had been placed with the Oregon State Hospital.​

Imagine these gardens 100 years from now. The pine tree at the entrance yellows in the winter, and then greens again in the spring while the vine maples along the entry path have reached together overhead to form a bright red alley in autumn. The native Gary Oak tree at the center of the courtyard will one day have limbs that stretch from wall to wall. By then, will the wooden bench have survived? It was carved from a Sycamore tree nearing the end of its natural life on this site.

Entering the courtyard, you pass through delicate metal filigrees – a constellation of lines drawn against the sky to represent the building that was attached to Building 60. The faint sketches of the missing windows prompt you to imagine yourself a witness to the architectural ghost of a building past, but no less significant, to the human history that took place here. On a sunny day, long shadows of the former windows stretch across the ground. Once inside the courtyard, you enter a world of unseen connections that bind us together – both living and dead.

This simple masonry building was built in 1896, originally as a pestilence house. Later it was a morgue. The now-empty copper urns are housed here in a humble and permanent resting place. Through their kaleidoscopic textures, reflections and hues, the original urns silently communicate their incredible story. Inlaid into the floor of this building are grey bricks that were once part of the north wall of this historic building, now set into their original configuration and appearing like portals into the earth.

The columbarium wall is made from sandblasted metal turned a soft matte from weather. The ashes from the copper urns were transferred into ceramic canisters and placed in the columbarium wall. The niche of each urn is engraved with a number, name and, if known, both birth and death dates. The urns were handmade by the artists during a three-month residency at the Kohler Company in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. A single empty ceramic urn is visible in a corner of the courtyard to recognize the patients who were ordered exhumed from Asylum Cemetery and cremated, but whose where­abouts are unknown.*

In years to come more families will come to claim their relatives. As each claim is made, the family takes home both the ceramic urn and the empty copper urn. Some have even chosen to let them rest in peace with the hope that others will continue to visit them here for generations to come.

When the ceramic urns are removed they are replaced by a hollow brass tube that represents the increasing significance of reunited families. As the golden perforations increase the transparency of this once solid wall it is hoped that the evolving appearance communicates the gradual closure of this important piece of Oregon history.​

Columbarium wall

The columbarium wall holds the ceramic canisters bearing the ashes of the dead.

​We began work on this memorial under the influence of three primary questions: how best to bring closure and dignity to individu­als who were collectively forgotten; how to resolve deterioration of the original copper urns; and how to re-introduce the hospital’s significant social history back into the tattered interior of the small red brick building?

Part artwork and part work of architecture, this design was developed in continual reference to our personal belief that the final resting place should be both simple and elegant – with a minimum artistic authorship which might otherwise overshadow the sanctity of the space. The key historical circumstance this memorial seeks to address is the public recovery of individuals who went missing for decades within the hospital system. To accomplish this, we felt intuitively that our response would need to take the shape of a physical space for gathering, rather than a sculptural form. In this way visitors would be invited to experience a peaceful place of contemplation whereby the living could quietly dwell amongst the deceased. We endeavored to create the possibility of sincere public reconciliation as visitors witnessed firsthand a permanently designated public space intended for the process of private closure.

To accomplish this it became clear that the creation of any memorial would be a hollow gesture if the cremains were left to continue decompos­ing inside plastic boxes and perpetually locked-away from public view. This set several initiatives into action, not least of which was the enormous task of creating new urns – followed by the emotional process of transferring the ashes from the corroding copper urns into the new ceramic urns.

In overcoming numerous difficulties, we are grateful for the many indi­viduals who extended themselves to support the completion of this special project. The three-year creation of this memorial has been a tremendously meaningful experience – emotionally, physically and personally. Part reli­quary for the now-empty artifacts and part long-term resting place for the cremated remains of people, this memorial is itself a vessel that will continue to fill with human experience and memory, even as it is slowly emptied of its physical contents with each reunited family.

The artists wish to especially thank the following institutions and individuals:

Tim Askin, David Keltner, Susi Hodgin, Chris Jones, Doug Macy, Kevin Long, Dr. Misty Weitzel, David Salove, Mike Thomas, Justin McKoon, Josh Powell, Fisher Funeral Home, Jamin Aasum, Ean Eldred, Val Jean Marcoe, Gerhard Hahn, Sharon McWilliams, The Kohler Company, Kohler ceramics associates, John Michael Kohler Arts Center, Ruth Kohler, Chris Bouneff, nami Oregon, Mental Health America of Oregon, Cascade Behavior Health, Dan Dowell, OHS Facilities Services crew, the Oregon State Hospital Replacement Project Team, Christine D’Arcy, Jodie Jones, Meagan Atiyeh.

Artist Annie Han at work

Artist Annie Han works on ceramic urns for the memorial.

Honoring the Past

For more than a decade, Oregon State Hospital has worked to reunite relatives of those who died and were cremated onsite from 1914 to 1973. Over the years, the hospital became custodian of almost 3,600 cremated remains, as no one came forward to claim them. As of 2021, the hospital has reunited the cremated remains of 894 people with family members and descendants.

View the list of unclaimed cremains and how to retrieve them

Inside of memorial showing copper urns and brick floor Building 60 was once the hospital's pestilence house and morgue. It is now part of the memorial.

Oregon Arts Commission logo Oregon State Hospital logo

Content copyright the authors and The Oregon Arts Commission.
All memorial photography Steve Hanson.