Sunday, February 12, 2012

Unwept, Unhonored, and Unsung

I posted this blog in 2008 and was recently reminded of it through an email from someone who commented on my regular second-Saturday post at Sandra Sookoos Front Porch Saturday." At the end of this blog are some links to related stories--all so very poignant.


 In 1975, the award-winning film "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" was filmed at Oregon State Hospital. The mental institution, now 125 years old, will be torn and replaced down beginning this fall. Remaining to serve as a museum on the history of mental health care will be the front section of the building with a cupola.

Inside the crumbling lead-and-asbestos-contaminated walls are preserved, in copper cannisters neatly lining rows of shelves, the unclaimed remains of 3,600 former patients who died from the late 1800s to the mid-1970s. They were discovered in 2004 by a group of legislators taking a tour with the view to replacing the building. Apparently they'd been forgotten or were, at least, unmentioned.

I cut the article written by Brad Cain of the AP from today's edition of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. It is now taped into my story idea notebook. The article doesn't say--but one would assume--that the cannisters are labeled with at least a name and date of death and that some records are to be found somewhere.

Nearly four thousands souls lost in time! There's a story there, a character to be invented, circumstances to be created, emotions to be called up. The idea of their so-called final repose certainly calls up my feelings, somewhat akin to what stirred in me as I passed the silent, grass-covered graves in the concentration camp Dachau. Unwept, unhonored, and unsung.

The mass graves held the remains of many, and it was difficult to comprehend the individuality of the souls within. But the picture of the cannisters reminds me that each one was truly an individual who lived and breathed, laughed, cried, loved, and succumbed to the loss of themselves long before their hearts ceased to beat.

I find it commendable that the remains were preserved. Was there hope that someone somewhere would come and take them home?

Near my hometown is a former tuberculosis sanitarium that housed many people in a time when the disease was prevalent. Genealogists have been refused permission to survey the cemetery and publish the information because, at the time, I suppose, TB was considered a frightening, even shameful affliction, and relatives did not want their family members to be associated with it. At least, that's the explanation I was given.

It's not difficult, given the era, to figure out why these 3,600 people were left where they passed the final years of their lives. It's time, I think, to bring one of them back to life in a story, fictional though it may be, so that the other 3,559 can proclaim, "We, though shut in by walls, were here among you!

Links to related stories--must reads!


Margaret Tanner said...

Hi Judy,
My goodness, that is so sad, unwept, unhonoured and unsung, could easily be the title for a novel.
I have to say the saddest thing I have ever seen are the 1st World War cemeteries/battlefields in France and Belgium. In one of the large British Cemeteries there were 25,000 soldiers buried, many of them, according to their headstone "known only to God."
In a couple of places in France and at the Menin Gate in Belgium, there are mounuments with 45,000+ names on tjem, representing British soldiers who were killed in the area and have no known grave. Chilling.



Judy Nickles/Gwyneth Greer said...

In my travels, I run across small-town cemeteries with rows and rows of unknown Civil War soldiers and feel the same way. The unknowns from every conflict gave everything and got nothing in return. Perhaps there was nothing that could be done for them--but these thousands of forgotten people are inexcusable in my thinking.

K9friend said...

You're right. There could be so many stories here. I hope you bring at least one of them to life, Judy!

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