Mental Health Association of Portland

Oregon's independent and impartial mental health advocate

OSH Patient Remains

In 2004 the Mental Health Association of Portland started talking and writing about the patient remains kept at the Oregon State Hospital.

From Library of Dust, by David Maisel

From Library of Dust, by David Maisel

The patient remains, which the hospital administration calls “cremains,” are the ashes of approximately 3500 cremated patients who died while in the care of the hospital, and whose families would not or could not collected the remains. These remains are enclosed in copper canisters, each with a stamped imprint, a number which may correspond to a list of patients at the hospital. Many, if not most of the patient remains are over 90 years old.


We asked the state to create a suitable memorial for the patient remains. This request was denied. We asked that the design of the memorial come from current and former patients of the hospital. Instead a committee was formed to discuss the memorial. The committee met several times but was poorly led and had no end product.

Since 2003 over fifty family members have contacted the Mental Health Association of Portland, and in turn contacted the Oregon State Hospital Medical Records office, proved their familial relationship with a deceased patient, and collected their relative’s remains.

We found the remains in an abandoned building on the campus of the Oregon State Hospital. Soon, Rob Finch, Doug Bates and Ric Attig of The Oregonian visited the remains. Their photographs and descriptions of the patient remains illustrated a 15 part series about the deplorable conditions at the hospital, and won the 2006 Pulitzer prize for Editorial Writing.

Read – Oregon’s Forgotten Hospital, from The Oregonian 2005

Other reporters also visited the hospital and the patient remains, including the New York Times, the Salem Statesman Journal, the Canada Post, USA Today, the Eugene Register-Guard, and several local radio and TV reporters. Over the past five years the Mental Health Association of Portland has spoken to reporters about the patient remains resulting in approximately 250 news stories.

The patient remains were photographed by David Maisel in 2004. David also made pictures of the interior of the abandoned section of the J Building. The images of the patient remains are collected as Library of Dust. The images of the J Building as collected as Asylum. Library of Dust has drawn critical attention across the country and showed at Blue Sky Gallery and the Portland Art Museum.

From Asylum, by David Maisel

From Asylum, by David Maisel

Anticipating a critical report from the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice about the hospital, State Senate President Peter Courtney used the patient remains to leverage the construction of two new state hospitals to replace the J Building.


The DOJ report stated patients are inadequately protected from harm by the hospital, there is inadequate incident management, that there are a high level of incidents (which typically means patient-on-patient, staff-on-patient violence, or patients harming themselves), that the reporting of incidents are confusing and inadequate, that investigations of incidents are inadequate, that medications, treatments, and interventions such as the use of seclusion and restraint, including the use of planned seclusion and restraint, are at odds with standard practice for public hospitals.

You can read the complete report here, Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act (CRIPA) Investigation of the Oregon State Hospital, January 2008.

The hospital posted their response to a 2006 CRIPA investigation with an undated overview of the findings in early 2008. No public response to the 2008 CRIPA investigation has been released that we know of.

In a term which brought cuts to outpatient treatment, the Oregon State Legislature approved $600 million dollar capital fund in 2007, which was later defined to build two new hospitals to replace parts of the current hospital. Whether this is a direct response to threats of lawsuits or the 2008 DOJ report is unknown. Advocates across the state have joined hands to oppose the hospital to be built in Junction City.

To date no memorial has been created for the patient remains. A “psychiatric museum” is included within the design of the new hospital. As far as we know, no current or former patients, no persons with psychiatric illness, and no friends of family members have participated in developing a memorial for the patient remains.