- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 12, 2005

SALEM, Ore. (AP) — Gustav Metzgus died in 1938 at the state psychiatric hospital where he was being treated for dementia, and his cremated remains were stored in a nameless metal canister alongside thousands of others in a dank room.

Then his granddaughter, Roseann Ismert, learned of his whereabouts. She recently picked up his urn and took it to her pastor to give him a blessing.

“Before that, he was just stacked on a shelf. There was no final prayer or send-off for him back then, so I felt something should be done,” Miss Ismert said.

Soon, the 3,500 other former patients whose cremains were stacked in a storage facility also might get a dignified final resting place.

Legislators, mental-health advocates and others are working to find a proper burial place for the remains and possibly a memorial. Because no state funds are available, private donations are being sought.

State Sen. Peter Courtney, who is leading the effort, said he became aware of the roomful of urns last fall when he took a tour of Salem’s crowded, run-down Damasch State Mental Hospital, where much of the 1975 movie “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” was filmed.

Mr. Courtney, a Democrat, said he was shocked to see the canisters stored in an abandoned storage building that once served as the hospital’s mortuary and crematorium.

“I found myself thinking ‘This is like sacred ground,’ and yet it isn’t a proper place for these people. It isn’t a respectful place,” he said.

Until the early 1900s, unclaimed hospital 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 cremains were placed in 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 again four years ago to the abandoned storage building.

There are no names on the urns, only numbers that correspond to names in the hospital’s records. As many as one-quarter of the 3,500 sets of remains can’t be identified, hospital officials said.

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

“We want to bring dignity and respect to these people,” said Jason Renaud of the Mental Health Association of Portland. “People with mental illness have been disenfranchised and set aside throughout history.”

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