Illustration by Alex DeSpain

THE PROPRIETORS of Gable Funeral Chapel and Cremation Services think it's a damn shame to overpay for a cremation.

The small Montavilla facility—for decades a redoubt of comfort to Portlanders experiencing loss—advertises "simple cremations starting at $660" in big block letters on its website.

"If our costs of performing a cremation are the same as our competitors'," the site asks, "why are they charging you so much more?"

Bargain basement pricing isn't the only thing about Gable that might stymie other crematories.

The funeral home has become the inspiration behind legislation that could limit where new crematories are allowed to operate in Oregon, which sits at the forefront of a national cremation boom. (According to industry figures, the state burned nearly 74 percent of its dead in 2013—a rate second only to Nevada.)

As the new bill makes its way through the Oregon House of Representatives, the funeral industry is pushing back, warning of government overreach.

Some quick history: Gable became a point of contention in 2013, when neighbors discovered its new corporate owners had quietly set up an incinerator without informing the residents or parents of students at a nearby elementary school ["Death from Above," News, Sept 11, 2013].

Suddenly, what had been an unassuming funeral chapel was emitting plumes of smoke every day, flouting the city's noise laws, and flooding the neighborhood with a "sickly sweet" smell neighbors found off-putting.

But activists found there wasn't much they could do. Gable was in compliance with city building code, and passed muster with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), which regulates crematory emissions (albeit lightly). It wasn't, however, complying with the city's noise code—a factor which has convinced the funeral home's corporate owner to conduct cremations at another location.

Now, neighbors have turned their focus toward the crematories of the future.

A bill introduced this year by Representative Alissa Keny-Guyer (D-Portland) could largely prevent human furnaces from finding their way into similar neighborhoods throughout the state. The legislation, House Bill 3056, would empower regulators to refuse permits to new crematories that present "danger to public health and safety of children."

Supporters claim that's exactly what Gable did every day its smoke wafted over nearby Vestal School and adjacent homes. They claim mercury—from dead people's dental fillings—and other toxic substances might have been harming kids.

The problem? There's little agreement on what incinerator smoke carries with it. The funeral industry says more research is needed. The Oregon DEQ says risk is minimal. Meanwhile, tests that Portland Public Schools ordered at Vestal in 2013 found mercury levels in the soil and on the roof were actually lower than in some other parts of the city.

"If significant and measurable quantities of mercury were emitted by this crematorium, one would expect to see more consistency in the levels of mercury detected in all the samples," said the report from local firm PBS Engineering and Environmental.

HB 3056 directs the nine-member Oregon Mortuary and Cemetery Board—made up of funeral directors, cemetery and crematory operators, and members of the public—to consider whether a proposed new crematory would sit near schools or "any other place where children are likely to congregate" when deciding whether to grant a state license.

The legislation is being pushed by the group Right to Clean Air, formed in response to the Gable incinerator. It's also won support from the Montavilla Neighborhood Association, which calls the legislation "a step forward in better protection of public health."

Keny-Guyer's effort has precedent. Communities around the country have railed against crematories in their neighborhoods. In Georgia, for instance, protests and outcry inspired a law making it illegal to put a stand-alone crematory within 1,000 feet of a subdivision.

But with demand in cremation-happy Oregon only expected to rise, funeral industry groups say potentially limiting new crematories could present difficulties.

"A moratorium on new crematories will likely have the effect of lengthening the time between death and cremation from two to four days to a week or more," says Barbara Kemmis, executive director of the Cremation Association of North America.

No one's suggesting a blanket moratorium, but local funeral industry players are still coming out in force against Keny-Guyer's bill. They say the mortuary board isn't equipped to handle questions of public health and land use.

"We're not sure they should be brought in to what appears to be a zoning or land issue," says Wally Ordeman, a funeral director in Albany, Oregon, and lobbyist for the Oregon Funeral Directors Association.

Rachel Fox, president of the Cemetery Association of Oregon, points out the legislation would have no effect on incinerations in veterinary clinics or hospitals, and that the language around places where "children are likely to congregate" is vague.

"The mortuary board isn't really set up to monitor air quality," she says. "The DEQ is."

Keny-Guyer didn't return several calls about the bill, and Chuck Spidell, a founder of Right to Clean Air, would only say his group is waiting to see if it makes it to Senate.

But it's clear the issue is as potent as ever to some of Gable's neighbors.

"It is not necessary to wait for scientific certainty before enacting protective measures," a Montavilla resident wrote to the legislative committee considering HB 3056. "Be brave, be bold."

CORRECTION: This article has been modified to reflect the following change: Gable Funeral Chapel and Cremation Services no longer does its cremations on site. It works through another facility.