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Unclaimed By Next of Kin

from Shelf-Awareness

Library of Dust photographed by David Maisel (Chronicle Books, $80, 9780811863339/0811863336, September 2008)


This is definitely a big gift book, measuring almost 18″ x 14″, which is a display challenge, but worth it. In 1913, Oregon State Hospital in Salem, a psychiatric hospital, began cremating the remains of deceased patients not claimed by next of kin. This practice remained until 1971, and David Maisel received permission to photograph the copper canisters containing the ashes of these patients. He also documented the building: paint peeling off the walls in Room 3, Hallway 2, Ward 66, J Building; a fragile sepia-toned letter from Ward 66; a 16-point star cut from a newspaper; tubs and plumbing pipes, cold and grim; a gurney with wide hanging straps. The canisters are extraordinary, having undergone chemical reactions with the ashes and the atmosphere, resulting in a harsh beauty. Burnished copper with green-blue corrosion and white rime. Malachite greens with a lichen-like patina on bent, dented and numbered containers. There are Rorschachs in mineral salts–a bed, an island, a Munchian scream. Or the world from an astronaut’s vantage, frost-like against vibrant blue. They form geographies of the soul, of lives lost to madness and neglect limned in magenta and rose. The urns were available to be photographed only because they were unclaimed–what dramatic or commonplace stories are held in these cans? “The minerals did form . . . rather quickly–is if forsaken souls could hardly wait to pass into another realm.”

[ click to read at Shelf Awareness ]

Posted on November 18, 2008 by Editor

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