'Cuckoo's Nest' hospital houses "forgotten souls"

In this March 10, 2005, file photo shows brass urns containing the unclaimed ashes of deceased inmates of the Oregon State Hospital, in Salem, Ore. The Oregon State Hospital publishes the names of 3,500 patients whose cremated remains were once forgotten in rotting tin cans at the facility made famous in the film "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." The hospital hopes to reunite surviving family members with the remains of patients who died between 1914 and the 1970s. (AP Photo/Greg Wahl-Stephens, File)

February 1, 2011 6:35:39 AM PST
Don Whetsell buried his grandfather last year, finally laying him to rest 60 years after his death.

The final resting place next to his wife was far better than the previous one: on a shelf with the neglected remains of 3,500 others in a storage area dubbed the "room of forgotten souls."

Whetsell is one of 120 people to claim the remains of loved ones who had been left behind at Oregon's state mental hospital, some of them in corroding copper canisters that had fused together.

Hospital officials are hoping a new online list will help them reunite living relatives with the forgotten patients and prison inmates who died at Oregon State Hospital between 1914 and the 1970s.

"I just felt that I couldn't rest," Whetsell said, describing his need to claim and bury his grandfather's ashes. "I knew my grandmother for years and loved her dearly. It made me feel good; I know she would've been pleased."

Whetsell's grandfather, Nathan McComber, died in the early 1940s after he was deemed insane and committed with symptoms that would, in modern times, probably be diagnosed as Alzheimer's disease, said Whetsell, 79.

McComber's ashes were in a solid copper canister that didn't seem to have any damage, Whetsell said.

The decrepit, 128-year-old Oregon State Hospital was the setting for the 1975 movie "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," starring Jack Nicholson, which drew national attention to the treatment of patients in some psychiatric hospitals. In 2004, a group of lawmakers stumbled upon the remains while touring the state hospital and vowed improve mental health treatment.

Their discovery was a catalyst for the approval of a new mental hospital and a boost in staffing.

"Already these remains have done so much to bring us so far in such a short time in how we deal with mental health," said Senate President Peter Courtney, who pressed for changes at the hospital after discovering the remains on the tour.

Officials were able to identify all but four of the forgotten souls. Lawmakers made it possible to publish the list of names when they passed a new state law exempting it from medical privacy laws.

Family members can take custody of the remains if they prove they're related by blood or adoption.

Mimi Stang, 70, asked to see the room where the remains are stored when she picked up the ashes of her uncle, who died at the state hospital in 1944. It was overwhelming to see so many people "that you know were individuals, that had a life at one time," she said.

"And here they are, still sitting on a shelf waiting for somebody to claim them," Stang said.

The first patients moved into Oregon's new 620-bed mental institution this month, leaving behind a crumbling hospital that had toxic paint, asbestos and a leaky roof. Forty percent of it was unusable, left to collect pigeon droppings and piles of antique medical equipment.

The old building was designed around outdated theories of mental health treatment. Staff there was criticized in 2008 for poor management after federal investigators found mice in rooms, deaths from pneumonia and outbreaks of scabies, along with nearly 400 cases of patient-against-patient assault over one year.

The new facility is built with shatterproof glass instead of jail-like bars, and many patients have their own rooms, giving them privacy and dignity that helps with their treatment.

"We've made a lot of improvements at the hospital," said spokeswoman Rebeka Gipson-King. "We still have some work to do as far as taking care of our past patients."

Plans for the new hospital called for a memorial and final resting place for the remains that are never claimed. The memorial is expected to open in 2012.

Whetsell hopes families come to claim the remains of the other 3,500 forgotten souls, and that any veterans in the group get proper military burials.

But he's not done with his own work yet, either. He is setting aside a few dollars every month and hopes to eventually afford a burial for his older brother, Kenneth Whetsell, who died in the hospital at age 11 after being committed for persistent seizures.

"It became a mission for me to do that," he said. "And I haven't finished it yet."

The official website for Honoring the Past - List of Unclaimed Cremains