HUMAN CORPSES have made their way to the faint pink funeral home at NE 80th and Everett for decades—the old, infirm, or unfortunate, arriving to be prepped for their final rest.
But it wasn't until this winter that nearby residents could smell and hear that preparation—its black evidence wafting over the neighborhood for all to see.
A crematory has come to quiet Montavilla, and neighbors aren't happy.
For the past seven months, a small group of residents have worked to curtail the grim duties carried out most days at Cremation and Burial Care of Oregon.
"I just don't think it's appropriate," says Ted Whitney, 60, who for the last seven years has lived on NE 79th, just southwest of the pink building. "I don't think it's a small thing they're operating a furnace like this in our neighborhood without any public notification whatsoever."
Whitney and others worry about harmful particles that might accompany the incinerator's emissions. They complain of a "sickly sweet" odor and point out Vestal School is less than a block away. They also post videos to YouTube of black smoke pouring from the crematory's stack (something crematory experts say shouldn't happen).
At the same time, the Montavilla group has been relentlessly phoning every state and city official they can think of, trying to find a way to tamp down the incinerations.
"It's interesting, too, because I want to be cremated," says Terry Dawson, standing on her front porch on a recent Friday, discussing the issue and sniffing the wind for the telltale scent of incineration. "But I don't want to live next door to a crematorium."
It's not uncommon in Portland for neighborhood coalitions to band together over issues like unruly activity in city parks or parking-free apartment projects. But the city hasn't seen backlash like this against a crematory—a scenario that's played out in other parts of the country in recent years, as cremations rise in popularity.
The fight extends beyond the Portland code, though neighbors bemoan the city's zoning policies. It also involves environmental concerns regulated by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ).
But just as groups upset by a rash of apartment projects in the last year had to eventually accept that the developments were in accord with laws, the Montavilla neighbors, it appears, have little recourse for relief.
Cremation and Burial Care of Oregon is in near-full compliance with applicable regulations.
"Are our laws strong enough to protect our citizens?" asks state Representative Alissa Keny-Guyer, a Portland Democrat who's looking into the neighborhood's concerns. "It certainly raises a question for me [about] what's coming out of those smoke stacks right in the middle of their neighborhood."
It wasn't always like this in Montavilla.
For years, the funeral parlor—previously known as Gable and Parkrose Funeral Chapel—offered only quiet, scent-free burials. But since its purchase by funeral industry megaplayer StoneMor Partners last year, the building's been retrofitted with a large incinerator that, neighbors say, runs for hours most days.
Due to DEQ permitting policies, the company didn't need to seek public comment before starting up, says David Monro, an air quality manager for the agency.
"They're in full compliance," Monro says of the business, noting: "Depending on the rate of operation, generally incinerators like this are fairly low emitters."'
Zoning is also not an issue for the business. Its "commercial storefront" designation allows cremations. So Whitney and his neighbors—about eight in total, he says—have had little success.
They did secure a finding by Portland Noise Control Officer Paul van Orden that the low whoosh of the incinerator is too loud. Van Orden sent a letter on Friday, September 6, ordering Cremation and Burial Care of Oregon to amend the problem within 15 days.
Russ Hendrickson, manager of the crematory, says he can't talk much about the matter without permission from his parent company. Messages left for Pennsylvania-based StoneMor weren't returned.
"We're working on some of the issues," Hendrickson said, in a slow, deep monotone perfectly suited to a funeral director. "It's a complicated issue."
As you might expect, Portland's far from the only community with residents averse to living near burning bodies. Rant-strewn websites exist dedicated wholly to the premise that crematories spew mercury into the air via the dental fillings of the departed. And in fact, crematories do release mercury.
"There is potential for low amounts, but it's a small amount," Monro says. Just how many pollutants an individual incinerator emits isn't something the DEQ tracks. Instead, it only requires crematories submit emissions studies completed on comparable machines.
In Georgia, disputes over incinerators in small communities have garnered media coverage, spurred protest marches, and sparked a state law banning stand-alone crematories within 1,000 feet of a subdivision. Similar fights have cropped up in California and Texas.
"Here's the advice I give anybody who calls me and says, 'I'm thinking of putting in a crematory,'" says Mark Matthews, a crematory owner in Palm Springs and past president of the Cremation Association of North America. "Go to Google maps and find out where the nearest residence is to you."
Matthews, who owns 12 crematories, says more study needs to be done on emissions, but that he recommends new incinerators go up in industrial areas, away from homes. Your realtor might advise the same. A 2010 study by researchers at Penn State University found proximity to a crematory negatively impacts housing prices.
"I'm a little shocked, to be honest with you," Matthews said when he heard a crematory was allowed in Montavilla with no public process. "I mean: We're talking about Oregon."
But Montavilla resident Whitney reached out to city officials with little effect. He and his neighbors are holding out hope for the intervention of Representative Keny-Guyer, who says she'll look into introducing legislation around the issue in 2015.
"I understand the argument of 'not in my backyard,' but this is next to an elementary school," Whitney says. "I'm really convinced we're not going to go away on this thing.
"If it takes us until 2015 or whatever, we're going to be there."