Beauty and Death in ‘Library of Dust’

Library of Dust is an ethereal yet very real documentary short about the cremated remains of deceased patients in an Oregon mental hospital.

Inspired in part by the David Maisel’s book of the same name, Library of Dust explores the ethereal through the photography of the copper canisters themselves. Over the decades, the copper turned bright green shades in its process of decay, adding something beautiful to what otherwise could be seen as sad. The sadness lies in that the ashes remain unclaimed by families, with many urns in storage for multiple decades.

Ondi Timoner and Robert James’s 2011 short is the exploration into mental health care in Oregon and these patients’ reclamations by their families. According to multiple interviews, patients historically experienced forced lobotomies, were admitted for speaking foreign languages, and even were admitted for refusing to do housework. While the field of psychiatric medicine has advanced significantly since then, the facilities within the hospital have declined. Fortunately, various actions have helped bring about new facilities.

Families also begin to claim the ashes of their relatives and fill in holes on their family trees. As one woman says, “We sprung her.” Some families bury the remains, while others wait, wanting to keep their relatives close for now.

This documentary packs a lot of information, ideas, and voices in a short span that easily could have been much longer. The meditative subject, tight editing, interwoven themes, and excellent cinematography make this short a compelling watch.

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