5000 Cans of Cremains

RemainsCansPhoto by Melanie Conner for The New York Times

Eva York died in a bathtub in 1896 at the Oregon Asylum for the Insane. After an inquest, which absolved the hospital staff of any blame, no one claimed her corpse, so she was buried in the asylum cemetery and forgotten.

Eighteen years later Eva’s remains were exhumed, cremated, placed in a copper urn and forgotten all over again. Today the corroding canister containing her ashes sits on a plain pine shelf in what’s called the “Cremains Room” at the 122-year-old Salem institution, now known as the Oregon State Hospital.

Eva York is one of about 5,000 patients whose cremains are neatly stacked in that stark, lonely room like cans of paint in a well-stocked hardware store. 

Rick Attig, All The Lonley People
The Oregonian, January 9, 2005

The collection of copper urns came into being in 1913–1914 when the state thought to make better use of the land occupied by the asylum cemetery. The bodies were exhumed, cremated and put into these canisters. All of the cannisters started out with paper labels identifying whose remains each contained, but most of those labels have fallen off or decayed over the years. (See also: Cans Without Labels)

Photo on left by Rob Finch for The Oregonian; photo on right by David Maisel

…at least one former patient said the cremains should stay where they are, in deference to how those patients had truly lived and died — in obscurity.

“To me those cans are a very honest representation of where we were,” said Grace Heckenberg, an advocate who was a patient at the hospital in 1969 and 1970 and said she believes the ashes of one of her ward mates are in an unclaimed urn. “And to take them out and put them out in some nice cemetery with a nice monument — it would just be a lie, a lie about my life, a lie about his life.”

Sarah Kershaw, Long-Forgotten Reminders of Oregon’s Mentally Ill
 NY Times, March 14, 2005

In 2005, photographer David Maisel made a series of photographs of the copper urns, now made into a book.


On my first visit to the hospital, I am escorted to a decaying outbuilding, where a dusty room lined with simple pine shelves is lined three-deep with thousands of copper canisters. Prisoners from the local penitentiary are brought in to clean the adjacent hallway, crematorium, and autopsy room. A young male prisoner in a blue uniform, with his feet planted firmly outside the doorway, leans his upper body into the room, scans the cremated remains, and whispers in a low tone, “The library of dust.” The title and thematic structure of the project result from this encounter.

David Maisel, Library of Dust

(Some additional photos, after the fold…)

Photos by Rob Finch for The Oregonian

(See also: Fred Baur’s Funeral Package)

Randy Ludacer
Beach Packaging Design

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