Each year, Oregon State Hospital holds a special ceremony to honor the lives of those who passed away while in residence at Oregon State Hospital and other state institutions in the region, whose cremated remains were never claimed. Because of the risks associated with in-person gatherings due to COVID-19, 2020’s ceremony was recorded. See the virtual ceremony here.
One question many people have is, “How have so many families come forward who never did before?” The answer is simple: Phyllis Zegers. For almost seven years, Zegers has worked tirelessly to track down the families of patients whose cremated remains were left at the hospital.
In November 2013, Zegers, a recently retired special education teacher, was doing genealogy for her family and found a distant cousin who was hospitalized and died at OSH in the 1890s. While trying to find out about her, she learned about the unclaimed cremains.
At first, Zegers just wanted to research and honor each person by writing up their biographies and post those online.
“Then I found out, without a lot of effort, I could find living relatives,” Zegers says.
She started reaching out to family members.
“At first, I was concerned, because they might find it intrusive or upsetting, but it wasn’t a problem,” says Zegers. “I got great feedback. People were just really pleased to get this information. They might have heard stories about what happened to grandma or a great uncle, and now they could find out what really happened.”
Zegers volunteers her many research hours, finding satisfaction in the outcome of her efforts.
“I love hearing the stories about what’s happening in the present-day families,” she says.
“Sometimes, I find five to ten people from the same family who never connected with each other and they now hold a family reunion. Or, they learn about a person’s mental health issues, and it sheds light on some of the family’s current- day mental-health issues. They think, ‘Aha! It’s not just me.’ And some talk to me about how they will perhaps forgive a parent or grandparent because they now understand the issues that person was dealing with.”
Helping people connect with long-lost family members, suddenly being able to identify a person in an old photo, or discovering Grandma didn’t die in childbirth but was institutionalized, helps people unravel family mysteries, Zegers says.
“Some people I contacted were as close as a sibling to the person who died in the hospital, and they didn’t even know. They had a hole in their life, like a big question mark they didn’t understand, and now they have an answer. This closes a lot of gaps for people,” she says.
Before Zegers began her work in 2013, the hospital had found some relatives when it posted the list of names online. However, the work really took off when Zegers began her research. And, in 2020, Zegers tracked down the families of every single one of the 127 deceased patients whose remains are going home this year.
“I enjoy it so much. With every person I research, it’s like picking up a new book and learning about these fascinating characters. As you study their lives, there are all these plot twists.”
Zegers also likens the research to putting together a jigsaw puzzle, adding, “Some pieces aren’t available, they’re still under the couch, and I’ll never find them. I always know I don’t have the whole story.”
For more than a decade, Oregon State Hospital has worked to reunite relatives of those who died and were cremated onsite from 1914 to 1973. Over the years, the hospital became custodian of almost 3,600 cremated remains, as no one came forward to claim them. As of 2020, the hospital has reunited the cremated remains of 696 people with family members and descendants.