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Oregon hunts for bodies at former asylum seen in ‘Cuckoo’s Nest’

SALEM, Ore. — Oregon will use ground-penetrating radar to search for bodies buried on the campus of a now-defunct psychiatric hospital where the movie “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” was filmed before a developer builds housing on the land.

The facility, which opened in 1883, once had a cemetery, but all the 1,500 bodies buried there should have been exhumed in 1913, the Statesman Journal reported Tuesday.

There is no evidence any remains were left behind, but the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde is asking the state to make sure before apartments and single-family homes are built on Oregon State Hospital’s North Campus.

The psychiatric hospital has a troubled history, including the discovery of 5,000 unclaimed sets of cremated remains that belonged to patients who died over a span of decades.

Briece Edwards, who manages historic preservation for the tribes, pointed to an inconsistent record of tracking cemeteries at state institutions, namely hospitals, orphanages and prisons. He called it a nationwide issue.

“Sometimes records are spotty,” Edwards said. The tribes wanted to ensure officials did their due diligence, he said.

Cemeteries also don’t always stay within their borders, he said.

“It’s not so much about confirming where the cemetery is, it’s about confirming where it isn’t,” Edwards told the newspaper.

The Department of Administrative Services, which owns the land, is hiring a contractor to do the search.

The state also will search the historical record for information about the exhumations and the cremated remains from the facility, department spokeswoman Elizabeth Craig said.

Opened 136 years ago as the Oregon State Insane Asylum, the hospital had a cemetery for 30 years. It closed in the early 1910s and state lawmakers ordered the remains exhumed in 1913, when the facility was renamed the Oregon State Hospital.

More than 1,500 people were buried in the cemetery, the newspaper has previously reported, ranging in age from children to older adults. Bodies that went unclaimed were supposed to be cremated.

State Senate President Peter Courtney discovered a room of thousands of metal urns of unclaimed cremated remains stacked on wooden shelves during a tour of the hospital in 2004.

They belong to people who died while living or working at the hospital and five other hospitals or state penitentiaries between 1914 and 1973, according to the Oregon Health Authority website.

It’s unclear if any of the people believed to have been buried in the hospital’s cemetery are in the discovered urns. In 2011, state researchers used records to try to match urns with families, but none matched with the cemetery’s burial records.

The state maintains an online list of the 2,972 cremated remains that have not been claimed for families to search.

The psychiatric hospital was used as a film set for “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” an Oscar-winning movie starring Jack Nicholson based on a novel by Ken Kesey.

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