'Cuckoo's Nest' asylum hunts relatives of 3,500 forgotten souls

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The mental hospital where One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was filmed is attempting to identify the cremated remains of 3,500 of its former patients, which were left on shelves in a secluded storage area for several decades.

Families of 120 people have so far come forward to claim small copper canisters containing the ashes of their ancestors. The remains were discovered in 2004, when a group of politicians touring Oregon State Hospital stumbled across the so-called "room of forgotten souls".

Officials at the hospital, which was built in Salem 128 years ago, this week launched an online database which aims to identify the descendants of patients who died there between 1914 and the 1970s, the period when fresh remains were being added to the storage room.

They used records to establish the names of the men and women contained in all but four of the canisters, some of which had corroded and were fused together. A law exempting the facility from medical privacy laws allowed the database to be launched.

Over the years, Oregon State Hospital has been the focus of occasional soul-searching over the treatment of the tens of thousands of patients committed to psychiatric facilities across the United States. Attention was first drawn to its decrepit wards, in which inmates were kept behind bars like common criminals, when One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was released in 1975. The film, starring Jack Nicholson, won several Oscars and sparked a national conversation about mental health treatment.

In 2004, when the "room of forgotten souls" was discovered, the politicians also found toxic paint, asbestos, infestations of mice, and antique medical equipment. Their subsequent report accused staff of over-medicating patients and failing to prevent deaths from pneumonia and outbreaks of Victorian diseases such as scabies.

After it was published, new management was brought in. They began tracking down relatives of "forgotten souls" asking if they would like to claim the remains. One of their number, Don Whetsell, yesterday told reporters how he had buried the ashes of his grandfather, Nathan, on a family plot.

The old facility has closed and its 620 patients were moved to a new treatment centre earlier this month. It has shatterproof glass instead of metal bars, and private rooms. A memorial to former patients of Oregon State Hospital will open there in 2012.