I've never known much about my dad's family. He and I are close, but he doesn't seem to know much more than I do—from what he tells me, it seems to be a pedigree of hardscrabble lives and early deaths in rural Western Oregon. He never knew his paternal grandmother's name; she died before he was born. Dad also had a sister who was married with babies in her teens and who died suddenly at age 28, and someone once told me a sotto voce story about how the sister and a friend had gone swimming in a pond somewhere near the Hanford nuclear site and soon after their hair fell out, their organs shut down, and they died. When I asked an aunt about this, she said that's not how it happened. But she couldn't tell me how her sister had actually died, either.
This has all seemed just unfathomable and Carverian to me. How do you not know your own grandmother's name? Like, what needs to happen in order for that to happen?
A couple of years ago, I started to dig. On the Mormon-run genealogy site Familysearch.org, I found out that Dad's other grandmother, Myrtle, had a sister that nobody in the family knew about, Cleo Mae, who had grown up with Myrtle and their three brothers outside of Coos Bay, Oregon. Cleo was tricky to research: She married three times and changed her last name each time, so it was hard to know which name I was even looking for. But I finally found a birth-date match in Cleo Mae Connolly: She had been born in 1900 in Coos Bay, she had two kids, she'd died at age 40 in a tuberculosis hospital in Salem, and, according to some helpful nerd who'd inputted this into Findagrave.com, no one had ever picked up her cremated body. Like, it was still there, 75 years later, on a shelf.
For most of the 20th century, it turns out, Salem's Oregon State Hospital (OSH) was used as a dumping ground for unclaimed human remains from at least five area health facilities, in addition to its own crop. A bunch of these people had died at the Oregon Asylum for the Insane and were first buried in the asylum cemetery, until 1913–1914, when the asylum decided it needed the land, exhumed the bodies, and shipped them over to the state hospital for cremation. Most of their headstones were chucked on a nearby hillside. Once the bodies were burned, they were packed in copper canisters and stashed in a basement for about 60 years.
In 1976, OSH decided to move the whole inventory—the cremains of more than 5,000 people—to a designated memorial vault. But the vault leaked and the canisters got oxidized and damaged, many of them afflicted by galvanic corrosion—that powdery white/turquoise zinc buildup that you sometimes see on car battery terminals. Each can ended up with a unique corrosive bloom, depending on how much water had come in contact with it and also the distinct chemical composition of the cremains inside. The bodies have since been repackaged and rehomed in the hospital's "Cremains Room," and in 2007, the hospital began publishing the names of the deceased (you can look at the list here in hopes of persuading locals to come pick up their ancestors. There are still about 3,500 of them sitting there. And one of them was Cleo, my great-grandmother's little sister.
I know all this because artist David Maisel made a glossy coffee-table book as well as a SIFF-winning 2011 documentary, both titled Library of Dust, which tell this story and showcase some of the more visually remarkable canisters. It's also how I learned that the decrepit, crumbling Oregon State Hospital is where Milos Forman's 1975 movie One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was filmed. Christ.
When I told my boyfriend, Stephen, what I'd found out about Cleo and the canisters and the hospital, he was like, "Uh, we have to do this." Thank god he just intrinsically knew that. Of course we did. The cherry on top was that we've been on a quest to visit every state capitol building in the United States, and we hadn't hit Salem yet. It writes itself, folks.
The paperwork was a pain in my ass. I first submitted a request through the OSH website in August of 2015, and didn't get a reply for months. Then they wanted a death certificate and proof that I was related to Cleo, whereupon it occurred to me that all I had no proof at all—just the word of some Mormons on the internet. Then the hospital was rearranging the library of dead people, so it wasn't a good time to come, and then I couldn't take the time off work, and then I re-contacted the hospital when I had time to make the trip and it was a new person and it took forever to get a reply, et cetera. It took a year and a half to set it all up.
We finally drove down to Salem last March. By now, more rummaging on Familysearch.org had led to this nugget: a newspaper article about Cleo, under one of her various aliases. In a 1924 article in the Southern Coos County American, Mrs. Cleo Winters, "a divorced woman," age 24, was picked up for committing several arsons in Myrtle Point, Oregon, outside of Coos Bay. She was spotted "at all the fires, either watching them intently or close at hand. It is the general belief that her mind has become deranged on this subject, inflamed by the liquor supplied to her." (It took me a minute to realize this phrasing was used because it happened in the thick of Prohibition.) Cleo was judged insane and sent to the state asylum in Salem—although she wasn't in the psych ward for long, because she married her second husband about six months later.
Oregon State Hospital is the best and weirdest museum ever, and I regret that we didn't have much time to futz around in there. The hospital has built a slick, somber memorial to the forgotten canned people, and it's an impressive spectacle: rows and rows of the old copper canisters on shelves behind glass, emptied of their contents, all decaying individually. It's installed in the 1890s brick outbuilding in which they were once stored. Enclosing the display is an aluminum parapet with the names of all the unclaimed patients and their serial numbers stamped into it, with a handful that were removed once the cremains were picked up.
Cleo's name was missing from the little aluminum wall, and I silently flipped out when I noticed. Was she sliced out for me? What if someone else had gotten there first and claimed her?
But she was waiting for us. After all the intrigue and rigmarole, the exchange itself was pretty uneventful. I didn't even have to prove I was related to Cleo. I said who I was, and someone came downstairs, handed me a cardboard box, and left. No "Thanks for picking up this inventory we've been storing for almost 80 years—we can really use the shelf space." No "Tell your friends with dead Oregonian relatives."
We stuck the body in the trunk of our rental car, toured the state capitol, and then drove up to Portland for the night. I waited until I got home to Seattle to open her up: Along with a bubble-wrapped cylinder of ashes, they'd given me the original copper can, which was pretty corroded, although I'd hoped for a super gnar one like in the David Maisel book. It's just okay. I am still glad to have a crusty copper corpse can.
I didn't really like having a dead lady in my new apartment, though. I don't believe in ghosts or any of that shit, but it just felt, you know, rude. This was someone's body, and she probably liked it and used it all the time, and I had a dumb sort of guilt about (1) owning it and (2) stowing it in my coat closet like an old bowling ball.
According to the internet, Cleo's parents, three of her siblings, and both of her children are all buried in a remote cemetery outside of Myrtle Point, south of Portland—a seven-hour drive from Seattle. Interring ashes is expensive, though, and even if I could afford it, I spent a good piece of time trying to figure out who runs this graveyard, and to all appearances, it's been... discontinued. Nobody works there. There's no phone number to call or anything.
So Stephen and I had the idea of going down there and just kind of like, uh, furtively sprinkling her around the family graves. It seemed like the thing to do, even though I'd heard it was possibly illegal. If we couldn't find the family graves, we figured we could stick her in a spooky hollow tree or something.
At long last, we made the drive to Coos County, Oregon, this summer and got her done. As imagined, not a (living) soul was to be found at the cemetery: It was a steep, wet field of disintegrating Victorian headstones on a hillside. Stephen and I split up and walked all over the damn cemetery for an hour but only tracked down one of Cleo's brothers' graves, none of her parents or kids.
Bro and his wife were in a wide-open field, not in the overgrown edges, and I still was about to pour Cleo into the grass next to him, but then we un-bubble-wrapped the package and found that she was inside of this kiln-fired clay cylinder with the lid baked on. I couldn't pry it off with anything I had in my purse. She had to be smashed.
I wasn't willing to make a big loud scene right in the middle of the lawn. Earlier, while poking around in a forest grove along the edge of the graveyard, looking for Cleo's family, Stephen had spotted a hollow tree limb with a conspicuous cement chunk-slab covering it, like a manhole. It was, somewhat terrifyingly, just what we'd been envisioning before we made the trip—our plan B if we couldn't find the fam.
We used it. I was squirrelly about making noise, but we had to act fast because we were standing there with the trunk open and it was shady as hell, plus it was starting to rain, and I worried someone might be watching us on closed-circuit camera. I gingerly bashed the clay urn with the cement lid thing and poured Cleo's ashes into the tree hole and then covered it up again. I was expecting sand and lumpy bone fragments, because that's what you hear about with cremains, but she was totally pulverized. Flaky, like a burned Duraflame log.
The end of the clay cylinder didn't smash off perfectly, though—it lay half intact and half in 10 different triangles—and most of Cleo did not make it into the hole. There was a bunch of her still in the grass, among the shards. Stephen stared at the mess and muttered, "Dude. That is fucked... up."
I was like, "Quick, help me rub her into the ground so it's not so obvious." We kicked her ashes around in the grass a little bit, collected the smashed clay bits and stuck them in a Juanita's tortilla chip bag, then hustled back to the car. I reassured Stephen that we were not the only people to pour cremains into a cemetery tree, probably not even that particular cemetery tree, considering that it came with its own lid.
It did feel messed up, what we were doing, although later I googled it and found out it's not illegal in Oregon to scatter a human's ashes anywhere you want. And I am okay in general with a body being left inside of a tree. Better there than pumped full of formaldehyde and left in a lacquered box. Or sealed in a copper can on a hospital shelf. Of the strata of messiness that Cleo dealt with in life, this seems comparably low. May Mrs. Cleo Mae Barkley Winters Eads Connolly—daughter, sister, wife, mother, Prohibition-era drunk, and serial arsonist—rest in peace, 77 years after she died, in the forest near her family and her hometown. Or at least until someone sets that tree on fire.