Thursday, September 4, 2008

Library of Dust, photographs by David Maisel

Library of Dust depicts individual copper canisters, each containing the cremated remains of a patient from a state-run psychiatric hospital. The patients died at the hospital between 1883 (the year the facility opened, when it was called the Oregon State Insane Asylum) and the 1970’s; their bodies have remained unclaimed by their families.
The copper canisters have a handmade quality; they are at turns burnished or dull; corrosion blooms wildly from the leaden seams and across the surfaces of many of the cans. Numbers are stamped into each lid; the lowest number is 01, and the highest is 5,118. The vestiges of paper labels with the names of the dead, the etching of the copper, and the intensely hued colors of the blooming minerals combine to individuate the canisters. These deformations sometimes evoke the celestial - the Northern Lights, the moons of some alien planet, or constellations in the night sky.

There are certainly physical and chemical explanations for the ways these canisters have transformed over time. Perhaps the canisters, however, also encourage us to consider what happens to our own bodies when we die, and, further, what may happen to our souls. Matter lives on when the body vanishes, even when it has been incinerated to ash by an institutional methodology. Is it possible that some form of spirit lives on as well?
On my first visit to the hospital, I am escorted to a dusty room in a decaying outbuilding, where simple pine shelves are 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 jumpsuit, 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 of the project results from this encounter. -from the artist's statement. for the full text and photos, visit David Maisel's website at

State hospitals are not the only places where people's cremated remains sit catalogued and unclaimed. Nearly every funeral home in the United States has tried without success to encourage some families to come in and claim their loved one's cremated remains. Often, after several years, the cremated reamins are placed in a crypt for safekeeping, for if a fire started at the funeral home, the identity of the cremated remains would be lost forever.
Cremated remains are left unclaimed for a variety of reasons, sometimes it is a temporary storage issue as the family waits for spring to bury or scatter, some families wait for the deceased's spouse to pass away, and they are buried together. Most often, however, families just do not know what they want to do with the remains, and the longer they wait, the more difficult it becomes for them to face up to retrieving them. There is not the urgency that determining the disposition of a casketed body demands. I don't beleive that anyone intends on leaving their loved one's cremated remains forgotten on a shelf. The lesson I draw from this situation is that decisions about death need to be discussed with loved ones before death, and decisions about death must be made without undue delay, no matter how difficult, rather than be put off for tomorrow, when inertia may have taken hold. Many families these days are pre-arranging their funeral services. Some pre-fund as well, and some just put on record their preferences. In either case a great feeling of relief is often the result. The decisions have been made, and we can go on with life.
-special thanks to Tony Garza. for sharing the Library of Dust story with me

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