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Inside Eastern Iowa's Libraries of Dust

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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — They’re called “libraries of dust”, and it’s hard to find a funeral home in the US without one.

They’re not archives of dusty books, but collections of cremated remains left unclaimed or forgotten by family and friends.

The first place to be dubbed a “library of dust” was in Oregon, a shed, at the Oregon State Hospital.

A few years ago, a state congressman, touring the mental institution, noticed a shed on the grounds and wanted to know what was inside. The tour group opened it and discovered about 3,500 copper canisters, filled with cremains.

They were people who had died while living at the mental institution, and other area hospitals, between 1914 and the 70s.

One of them was an Iowan, Henry Wagner.

Wagner was from Oxford. He died in 1938 while living at the Oregon State Hospital as a psychiatric patient. His distant relative, Bobby Jett, thinks Wagner might have been forgotten by his family who, like many at that time, may have been embarrassed by mental illness.

“People were just written out because it was very taboo, which it is still today. People don’t like to talk about people who have mental illnesses,” Jett said.

With no next of kin to claim him, Wagner was cremated — placed in a copper canister and shelved for decades in Oregon’s library of dust.

“To me, the saddest part of this story is, in life, Henry was forgotten. He had no one. In death, he was forgotten,” Jett said.

Cedar Rapids has its own sad stories of forgotten cremains. A garage at Brosh Chapel is their library of dust. Inside are the unclaimed cremains about 35 people.

Officials had nowhere else to put the remains. Instead of a grave, they sit on a shelf among decorations and lights.

“I think there are six shelves of cremated remains of people,” said the funeral home’s owner, Matt Linn.

Linn said Brosh Chapel has been holding on to some of the cremains since the 1950s.

He can’t say for sure why people are leaving others behind, but believes part of it may be financial. A 2012 survey found a cremation and burial costs on average about $3,700. A fee Linn said some don’t want to pay.

“It’s not a cool thing to do, but you can walk away from your home. You can walk away from any financial obligation if you so choose,” Linn said. “Even a loved one.”

Throughout the years, employees at Brosh have reached out to families asking them to pick up the remains without any luck.

“They’ll be here a very long time, probably,” Linn said.

At Cedar Memorial, a similar issue forced employees to do something with the cremains of about 40 people, inherited after purchasing another funeral home.

For years Cedar Memorial tried to find next of kin, but limited records made it an incredibly difficult search.

“Many of those cremated remains were from the early 40s. Many were fetal deaths. There wasn’t an identifiable name. It would just say infant child,” said Randy Fagle, Cedar Memorial’s director of funeral operations.

Instead of storing them, through state law, Cedar Memorial was allowed to seal cremains away in an unmarked vault behind a wall in their cemetery, creating a sort of tomb of the unknown.

“There’s nothing sadder to me than someone who is forgotten after they pass,” Jett said.

Not every story of lost remains has a sad ending. A few months ago Bobby Jett tracked down the remains of his ancestor, Henry Wagner at the Oregon State Hospital.

Jett had them brought to Iowa, where Wagner was buried in the Oxford cemetery next to his mother and father. As Jett put it, it was like relighting a candle that had long ago been snuffed out.

“When you have a stone, with a name and a date, there’s a candle that’s burning that says I was here,” Jett said.

After about 75 years, forgotten in the original library of dust, Wagner was home.

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