SALEM, Ore. — Oregon officials on Monday dedicated a memorial for the unclaimed remains of 3,500 people dubbed the “forgotten souls,” most of them former patients at the state mental hospital who became a symbol of the nation’s history of mistreating, neglecting and warehousing the mentally ill.
The dedication comes a decade after lawmakers discovered the remains on a tour of the Oregon State Hospital. The remains were the impetus for a renewed focus on improving treatment for the mentally ill in Oregon.
“They had been forgotten. They were unclaimed and unknown,” said state Senate President Peter Courtney, who fought successfully to build a new hospital and the memorial after discovering the remains. “They were neglected, disrespected for so many years. But not anymore.”
Courtney said a new 620-bed mental hospital, which replaced an institution that was more than a century old, would not have been built without them.
The memorial displays the copper canisters, many severely corroded, that once contained the cremated remains. They are stacked from floor to ceiling in a restored building where they had been locked away.
To protect the remains, the ashes have been transferred to new ceramic urns and placed in a columbarium that surrounds an outdoor plaza. Each person’s name and birthday is on display. If someone is claimed, their name and ashes will be removed.
Between 1913 and 1971, more than 5,300 people were cremated at the hospital. Just over 3,400 remain.
Most were patients at the mental institution, but some died at local hospitals, the state tuberculosis hospital, a state penitentiary or the Fairview Training Center, where people with developmental disabilities were institutionalized.
They came from every state except Alaska and Hawaii. Nearly 1,000 were born abroad in 44 countries. Five were born at sea.
Twenty-two were Native Americans. Their remains will be returned to their tribe for a proper ceremony, and they won’t be part of the memorial. Members of the local Sikh community are working to claim the remains of two people.
Many of the 110 veterans still there will eventually receive proper military burials, though some are ineligible due to dishonorable discharges or insufficient information available.
“Despite the tragedy surrounding the discovery, I believe their lives were not in vain,” said Shannon Pullen, a mental health advocate whose brother is a patient at the hospital. “They have, in fact, started us on a path toward improved treatment for people in Oregon living with mental health issues.”