You and everyone you know will die. Thinking about our mortality can be terrifying, which is probably why we’re so averse to discussing the objective realities of death.
If you’re reading this, you probably live in Portland. Maybe you’ve lived here your whole life, and have already experienced the passing of someone close. Or maybe you’re like me, a transplant who often lingers on thoughts about what, exactly, would happen if I or someone I care about died right now. Like, right this minute.
Conceptualizing death might be a lot less stressful if we talked about the facts—where bodies go, the different ways they can be laid to rest, how much it all costs. So here’s a step-by-step guide to what happens when you die in Portland.
PART I: YOUR DEATH
“All our times have come
Here but now they’re gone
Seasons don’t fear the reaper
Nor do the wind, the sun, or the rain
We can be like they are
Come on baby, don’t fear the reaper
-Blue Öyster Cult, “Don’t Fear the Reaper”
WHERE YOU’LL DIE
According to the Stanford School of Medicine, although 80 percent of Americans would prefer to die at home, “60 percent of Americans die in acute care hospitals, 20 percent in nursing homes, and only 20 percent at home.” Unless we’re all consumed in a nuclear holocaust or swept away by that gnarly earthquake/tsunami combo, odds are you’ll die in a hospital.
There’s at least one in every quadrant of Portland: Northwest has Legacy Good Samaritan, Southwest has the Oregon Health and Science University Hospital (along with the Portland VA Hospital and Doernbecher Children’s Hospital), Northeast has Legacy Emanuel Medical Center and Providence Medical Center, and Southeast has Adventist Medical Center and Providence Milwaukie Hospital (not technically Portland proper, but death knows no borders). You could drop dead anytime and anyplace, but if you have a medical event or an accident requiring acute medical care—perhaps you’ll choke on a grape while picnicking in Laurelhurst Park, or get sideswiped riding your bike on Cesar Chavez—someone will call the paramedics (I mean, hopefully), and you’ll be taken to the hospital.
Following accidents, murders, suicides, overdoses, death from contagions, and on-the-job expiration—basically any death that occurred under suspicious or unknown circumstances—an autopsy is required so law enforcement can figure out what the heck happened. If they need to do one, you’ll be sent to the State Medical Examiner. There’s no fee for the investigation, but there might be a charge to transport the body to and from the Medical Examiner’s office.
THE DEATH WITH DIGNITY ACT
In 1997 Oregon passed the Death with Dignity Act, which gives terminally ill Oregonians the option to end their lives via voluntary self-administration of a life-ending pharmaceutical prescribed by a doctor. This physician-assisted suicide isn’t legal in every state, and there are tons of rules: Patients must be 18 years or older and suffering a terminal disease with six months or less to live. They also have to be able to self-administer the drugs. There are a lot of logistical hoops to jump through, but it’s an option. According to the state’s 2016 report, of the 133 people who died via physician-assisted suicide in Oregon last year, most were cancer patients aged 65 years or older. Costs for the prescription fluctuate all the time, but they can range from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars. If you were terminally ill, this route would allow you some agency with where you die. (95 percent of patients choose to self-administer the drugs at home.)
PART II: MORTUARIES, FUNERAL HOMES, AND CREMATORIUMS—OH MY!
Once you’re given a cause of death, your next of kin will be advised to begin making the “final arrangements,” which refers to postmortem paperwork (the death certificate and any permits that the disposal of your remains might require), funeral or memorial services, and your “final disposition”—put simply, how you’re gonna get rid of the body. Final disposition includes cremation, burial, interment, or authorized transportation to another state.
There’s a chain of priority for which family members have the legal right to control final disposition, but if there’s a particular friend or relative you’d like to be in charge, you can appoint them (with the help of a licensed funeral service practitioner) while you’re still alive. This isn’t automatically granted to the executor of your will or whomever has power of attorney.
Dead bodies are generally taken to a crematorium, mortuary, or funeral home. Crematoriums solely deal with cremation, but the difference between mortuaries and funeral homes is subtler. They both can help with the paperwork, but mortuaries are focused on the physical aspects of final disposition. Mortuaries offer on-site cremation, while many funeral homes have off-site cremation chambers or send bodies to mortuaries/crematoriums. There are a few full-service funeral homes (like Riverview Abbey in Southwest Portland) that have on-site embalming and cremation, but they’re rare.
Funeral homes are like the gentle middlemen between your next of kin and the grim reaper. Services vary with each business, but most can help with paperwork, corpse transportation (since buckling someone into the backseat isn’t really an option—a funeral service practitioner must direct the removal and transport of remains) embalming, off-site cremation, coordination of burial and memorial services, and purchasing options for urns and caskets.
All licensed death care facilities in Oregon are mandated by law to give you their General Price List (GPL) for these expenses before discussing any final arrangements. That means if you ask for the GPL over the phone, they’re required to read it to you. Shop around! Call multiple places, not just the one that’s closest—you definitely shouldn’t feel trapped into paying thousands of dollars you don’t want to or simply can’t afford to spend. Fair warning: Some of these places have cheesy ’80s hold music and prerecorded condolence messages. And a lot of funeral homes are open 24/7, since people die... 24/7.
GUESSTIMATING THE COST OF DEATH
I called eight Portland funeral homes and asked for their GPLs to find out the price range for two cheap, common methods of final disposition: direct cremation and immediate burial (which doesn’t include visitation, a ceremony, or a graveside service—the body just goes straight into the ground). I chose to focus on no-frills, à la carte services rather than package deals or funeral/memorial ceremonies, since those vary widely with each funeral home and personal preference. There are various fees that can be added on top of these numbers, like if the body is over a certain weight. Note that these prices don’t include state filing fees for the death certificate, but do include the funeral home’s basic services fee and removal/transportation of the corpse. Also, these prices are subject to change—they’re just ballpark figures.
DIRECT CREMATION (WITH ALTERNATIVE CARDBOARD CONTAINER): Average: $1,313 | Range: $595-1,899
IMMEDIATE BURIAL (EXCLUDES COST OF CASKET, EMBALMING, AND CEMETERY PLOT): Average: $1,620 | Range: $710-2,135
THE DEATH CERTIFICATE
Bureaucracy, man—you even need paperwork to die. In Oregon, your next of kin must file a death certificate within five days of your death and before your final disposition. The death certificate costs $25, and $20 for each additional copy. Whoever is in charge will probably need multiple certified copies to claim any of your property or benefits.
CORPORATE VS. FAMILY-OWNED FUNERAL HOMES
If you’ve ever watched Six Feet Under, you’re probably hungry for some dirt on the tension between corporate and family-owned funeral homes. In 2014, Forbes reported that the American funeral industry generates around $20 billion annually. (That statistic is three years old, but people haven’t stopped dying, so it’s probably close.) Funeral homes are just like any other for-profit business—big companies often create national chains that have the potential to displace local, family-owned operations. Or, corporations buy family-owned funeral homes and keep their names to avoid sounding like the McDonald’s of death. But it’s best to see every funeral home, corporate or family-run, for what it is: a business. Most people aren’t evil (I think), so they probably aren’t trying to profit off of pain. But do the same amount of research you would before making any major purchase; know your rights and what’s reasonable price-wise, so you don’t wake up from your grief hangover and realize you spent all your savings on an $8,000 casket.
YOUR RIGHTS UNDER THE FUNERAL RULE
When dealing with funeral homes, you’re always protected by the Funeral Rule, which is enforced by the Federal Trade Commission and guarantees that “You have the right to buy separate goods (such as caskets) and services (such as embalming or a memorial service). You do not have to accept a package that may include items you do not want.” It also protects your right to ask for that GPL without giving the funeral home your name, address, or telephone number. Cemeteries are not regulated by the FTC, so the Funeral Rule does not apply, but they generally provide price lists. The Funeral Consumers Alliance is a great resource if you aren’t sure what your rights are when you’re planning a funeral, or if you experience an issue with a death care provider. The Oregon Mortuary and Cemetery Board is a regulatory board that licenses death care providers and the facilities where they work. The Board doesn’t regulate death industry prices, but if you have a complaint against “a funeral director, embalmer, preneed salesperson, death care consultant, funeral home, cemetery, or crematory” in the state, they first recommend attempting to resolve the issue with the facility, but consumers are also welcome to call the Board office to discuss their experience. They’ll only investigate a complaint with sufficient evidence, so don’t start unprovable beefs.
VENMO FROM BEYOND THE VEIL
Cameron Holmes, the General Manager/Funeral Director of Holman’s Funeral and Cremation Service, estimates that one-third to one-half of his customers make prearranged plans for their final disposition. Planning and prepaying for your own funeral ensures that any specific wishes you have—for instance, to be buried in a hot-pink coffin with your tongue out and hands positioned in the “rock and roll” gesture—will be honored, and that your loved ones won’t have to foot the bill. Some life insurance policies cover funeral expenses, but you could also open a funeral trust account, which stipulates your requested services and holds your money so no one can touch it until you die. You could also just give money to your next of kin with a list of demands, unless you don’t completely trust them (understandable). You can set up funeral trust accounts with funeral homes or banks, but the State of Oregon’s Division of Financial Regulation warns that there are “unscrupulous con artists who sell overpriced plans or just take your money. Ask to see a valid business license.”
DIY DEATH CARE
You do not need to use a funeral home. According to Chad Dresselhaus, the Education & Compliance Program Manager at the Oregon Mortuary and Cemetery Board, state law allows a relative or friend of the deceased to perform the duties of a funeral service practitioner, but they must be unpaid and must follow all laws “for the care and handling of the decedent’s remains, completing paperwork, receiving a transport permit, and for arranging final disposition.” He says anyone interested in acting as a funeral service practitioner for an upcoming death should contact Oregon Vital Records.
PART III: THE FINAL DISPOSITION
There are so many ways to (legally) get rid of a body. It can be buried in the ground old-school style or organic vegetable-style. It can be cremated, and then scattered into the wind The Big Lebowski style. Your urn can be buried underground, or placed atop your kid’s mantel so they know you’re always watching. You can donate your body to science, if you want to help medical schools weed out prospective doctors based on their tolerance for real-life blood and guts. You can be buried at sea, or launched into deep space. Most people opt for ground burial or cremation, and according to the National Funeral Directors Association, in 2015 America’s rate of cremation surpassed that of burial. That same year, the Cremation Association of North America notes that Oregon’s cremation rate was more than 71 percent. Overall cost for your final disposition depends on the services picked by you or your next of kin, the casket and vault or urn, and the automotive equipment you utilize for transportation.
OREGON’S INDIGENT DISPOSITION PROGRAM
Oregon law describes an “indigent” as someone who died without an insurance policy covering the disposition of their body and who didn’t have relatives with the legal right or will to direct and pay for the deceased’s disposition. Let’s get real: Most people do not have an insurance policy covering postmortem arrangements. But if your next of kin cannot afford even the cheapest option for final disposition, the state will consider you an “indigent” (except for veterans—veterans and their spouses are eligible to be buried at Portland’s Willamette National Cemetery free of charge).
This troubling predicament has always existed; the unclaimed used to be laid to rest in potter’s fields and mass graves. But if you die in Oregon in 2017 and no one claims your body for 10 days (a period wherein the funeral establishment attempts to contact any surviving relatives), they can transfer it to one of the approved education or research organizations listed by Oregon’s Mortuary and Cemetery Board. If the body is not desired by any of these organizations, the funeral establishment can bury or cremate using the cheapest possible method, and the Oregon Mortuary and Cemetery Board will provide a modest reimbursement.
Because the Indigent Disposition Program doesn’t track where the deceased lived before their death, the Oregon Mortuary and Cemetery Board was unable to provide the Mercury with an exact count of how many Portland residents were deemed “indigent” last year. However, they do know that Portland funeral homes were reimbursed for 100 indigent body claims in 2016 (although those bodies could’ve been picked up from somewhere else). That number was almost double for the entire Metro area.
DONATE YOUR BODY TO SCIENCE
If you like science, consider donating yourself to the OHSU Body Donation Program, which has supported anatomical instruction for medical students since 1976.
“On average, we will have between 100 and 150 donors per year coming into the program,” says William Cameron, Ph.D., Executive Director and OHSU Body Donation Program Demonstrator of Anatomy. “We have a special contract or agreement that we enter into with the donor prior to death or with their family after their loved one has succumbed, and that is basically [about] whole body donation being quite different than the ‘D’ on the driver’s license.”
You can make arrangements with OHSU before you die, or your family can donate your body after your death. It’s free to participate in the program, but donors living outside of the Portland Metro area are charged a transportation fee.
You can be any age to donate, but Cameron says most donors are octogenarians. You must weigh between 100 and 200 pounds, and they won’t accept anyone who died from communicable diseases. The body cannot have suffered extensive trauma (that includes unhealed surgery) or undergone advanced decomposition. One more catch: You can’t be an organ donor and donate your body.
People need organ transplants, so that’s always the highest priority. But you can’t overextend your body: “If it is a full tissue procurement, that person is not qualified for our program,” Cameron says. “We’re such a small percentage of the overall deaths in the state, though, that we don’t think the donors that we get negatively impact Donate Life Northwest or live transplant folks from having access to tissue.”
There’s an outside time of up to three years before families could expect to have the donor’s remains (which are usually cremated) returned to them. “We make a big point that all of the components of the donor that have been studied are rearticulated, so they’re all there at the time of cremation,” Cameron says. “So the family gets a very complete set of cremains.”
OHSU’s Body Donation Program stopped accepting unclaimed bodies from the Indigent Disposition Program in 2008, and now only takes consenting donors into the program. Cameron says this changed after “just feeling that we owed it to our students and others to take the ethical high road, and being able to tell them that the people they’re working on wanted to be there and wanted to make this contribution.” Basically, they don’t want to study the bodies of people who didn’t have any say in how their remains were disposed of, especially due to lack of funds. There’s another academic body donation program at the Western University of Health Sciences in Lebanon. Oregon also has two for-profit body donation programs: Medcure and Biogift.
Here’s a mildly gory description of what happens during cremation: Dead bodies are incinerated inside cremation chambers at about 1800 degrees Fahrenheit. This one- to three-hour process reduces the body to bone fragments, which are pulverized into a few pounds of smooth, whitish cremains.
All-inclusive direct cremation is the simplest and cheapest option for final disposition. The body is picked up, death certificates/permits are filed, the cremation happens, and the ashes are returned to the next of kin in a plastic urn. If this sounds like your style, remember to say the magic words: all-inclusive. That should include the service fee charged by the funeral home, for the help they provide filing the paperwork.
Another important note: You do not need a casket for a cremation—they’re required to offer you an “alternative container,” which is basically a heavy cardboard box. You can use a casket for cremation, if you really want to, but note that it’ll obviously be more expensive. You also don’t have to buy the casket for cremation or ground burial at the funeral home; you can buy one somewhere else and bring it there.
STORING AND SCATTERING ASHES
There are no laws regulating how you’re allowed to store ashes. It makes no difference whether you keep them in a ziplock bag or an urn made in the shape and size of a University of Oregon football helmet. (Yes, those exist.) You’re allowed to scatter ashes on private land (or with approval of its owners) and in cemetery scattering gardens. Check local regulations and zoning restrictions if you want to scatter ashes on public land, like Forest Park. It’s also smart to ask permission before scattering ashes on federal land—in the greater Portland area, that means the United States Forest Service land around the Columbia River Gorge and Mount Hood National Forest.
The Environmental Protection Agency issues general permits under the Marine Protection, Research, and Sanctuaries Act for burial of both cremated and non-cremated remains in the ocean. If you’re going to scatter ashes at sea, you’ll need this MPRSA permit. The federal Clean Water Act requires that you’re at least three nautical miles from the coast, and you must report the scattering to the EPA within 30 days. There are some charter companies that will boat you out to the legal scattering areas on the Oregon Coast. The EPA prohibits the scattering of ashes on beaches and wading pools, so that scene in The Big Lebowski was definitely illegal. There are also specific regulations for inland bodies of water, so if you wanted your ashes dumped in the Willamette (why) or the Gorge, you’d need a permit from whatever state agency controls the waterway.
SHOOT YOUR ASHES INTO SPACE (LIKE A JERK!)
There’s still a lot we don’t know about space—it’s very vast—which is probably why it feels so mystical to fart into the void by shooting our ashes into its infinite, starry horizons. Sure, go ahead and pollute something as untouched as SPACE with the remains of your mortality. There are a few companies (Memorial Spaceflights and Elysium Space, for example) that’ll send your ashes into deep space, or to a permanent resting place on the moon, or into Earth’s orbit, where they’ll eventually re-enter the atmosphere and vaporize like a shooting star. Costs range from about $2,000 to well over $12,000, because it’s expensive to be this annoying.
Traditional burial typically involves embalming, a chemical process where the blood is drained from a body and replaced with chemicals that slow decomposition. Practically, this allows for more time between a death and a funeral service, and it’s been a religious practice for ages. (Mummies!) The embalmed body is then usually put inside a casket, which is encased in a concrete vault (used to maintain the casket’s depth), which is covered by dirt and topped with a headstone or grave marker.
While Oregon law doesn’t require embalming, bodies held longer than 24 hours must be embalmed or refrigerated at 36 degrees Fahrenheit or less. No one’s going to embalm your body without prior consent from your next of kin, but they do have to refrigerate you like any other decomposing meat product. Your relatives can take your body out of refrigeration for six hours at a time if they want to look at you or transport you out of state. But if the journey’s longer than six hours or you died from a communicable disease, you’ve either got to be embalmed or kept in a sealed casket.
Modern embalming practices were popularized in America during the Civil War, when the bodies of fallen soldiers could legally only be sent home if they were properly embalmed. Before that, natural burial was the only burial. Bodies were wrapped in a shroud or placed in a container and lowered into a hole in the ground—no vaults, no chemicals, no nothin’.
Natural burial is coming back in vogue, probably because people are realizing that putting chemical-saturated bodies into the ground isn’t great for Earth. Some cemeteries (like Rose City Cemetery in Northeast Portland or River View in Southwest) can accommodate green burials that don’t include embalming, an outer burial vault, or casket—but many won’t allow it, since the ground settles differently above an exposed body or casket if it’s not supported by a vault. If a cemetery does allow green burial, there are often maintenance fees for the extra upkeep.
YOUR DEATH WHIP
Coffin: A hexagonal-shaped box, tapered at the bottom to resemble the shape of the human body. This is Count Dracula’s whip.
Casket: A rectangular, usually wooden container that’s often lined with cushy fabric for maximum comfort on your passage into the Great Beyond. These often feature airtight seals for body preservation. Some people even purchase durable steel or semi-precious metal caskets to protect against the elements.
Shroud: A simple piece of cloth wrapped around the body.
Mushroom Decomposition Suit: There’s a company called Coeio that sells an “Infinity Burial Suit” made with mushroom spore-infused thread for $1,500. If you’re buried in the suit, mushrooms will grow from your body and slowly digest you. Coeio’s website says the suit “cleanses the body and soil of toxins that would otherwise seep into the environment,” “delivers nutrients from body to surrounding plant roots efficiently,” and “restarts life around the body faster than normal.”
Portland has cemeteries within city limits that are open to “new sales”: To name a few of the bigger ones, there’s Rose City Cemetery in Northeast, Mount Calvary Catholic Cemetery up by Forest Park, River View Cemetery in Southwest, Columbia Pioneer Cemetery in Parkrose, and my personal favorite, Lone Fir Cemetery, which is Portland’s second-largest arboretum. Metro operates some of the city’s historic cemeteries, like Lone Fir, and prices for interment and inurnment can be found on their website. It’s important to note that these charges are separate from the immediate burial cost at funeral homes.
If you wanted to be buried at Lone Fir, smack dab in the middle of inner Southeast, it’s $2,695 to $4,395 for interment in a casket burial. But then you also have to pay the grave opening and closing fees, which range from $1,175 to $1,725 for adult-sized caskets. And then you have to buy an “outer burial container” to avoid damage when the ground settles. Those run from $695 to $1,150. Without adding the cost of a headstone, engraving, memorial services, and funeral home expenses, you’re probably not getting buried in Lone Fir for less than $5,000. These prices obviously vary with each cemetery, but it’s safe to say that most burials will be more expensive than cremation.
Every cemetery has the authority to make rules that dictate many specific details of their property, like what kind of grave markers can be used or whether plants or shrubs are allowed. However, they can’t require bodies to be embalmed, unless they have a communicable disease or haven’t been properly refrigerated. According to Dresselhaus, “all cemeteries are required to maintain, publish and distribute their Cemetery Rules, which will specify what, if any, requirements a specific cemetery has for the use or prohibition of vaults, markers, etc.” You can request a copy of their Cemetery Rules while you’re perusing.
PRIVATE PROPERTY BURIAL
Oregon law allows burial on private property, but only under certain conditions. You need consent from all of the property’s owners, and the local planning commission must confirm (in writing) that you’ve met their requirements for land use—these can include distance from a waterway or depth of burial. If they approve your plans, you must maintain “accurate, permanent records of the burial” and disclose the burial if the property is ever sold. You’ll also need to attach a treasure map to the deed so they’ll know where the corpse is located.
BURIAL AT SEA
Viking funerals are NOT ALLOWED. You cannot light a nautical vessel carrying a body aflame and cast it into a municipal waterway. Don’t even think about it. Why? Caitlin Doughty—LA-based mortician, author, and founder of the Order of the Good Death—says that regular cremations only work because the body is enclosed in a screaming hot chamber for hours. Merely lighting one on fire will not completely incinerate it, and thus, if you were to illegally conduct a Viking funeral, at some point scorched chunks of flesh would find their way back to shore. ILLEGAL, and for good reason.
However, if you obtain the same MPRSA permit required for scattering ashes in the ocean and follow all of the EPA’s guidelines, you can bury someone at sea. Some of the rules are the same as they are for ash-scattering, but since you’re dealing with an actual body, there are far more stipulations. For instance, you can be buried with or without a casket, but if you don’t use one, the EPA recommends “wrapping a natural fiber shroud or sail cloth around the body and adding additional weight, such as a steel chain, to aid in rapid sinking.”
FUNERAL HOME SPOTLIGHT: Holman’s Funeral and Cremation Service
Founded in 1854 as A.P. Delin & Co., Undertakers, Holman’s Funeral and Cremation Service is the second oldest continually operating business in Oregon after the Oregonian. They’re this state’s OG death professionals. The first two locations were in present-day downtown, and in 1924 Holman’s moved to its current address, a mansion that sits next to Safeway on the 2600 block of Hawthorne Boulevard (the mansion’s former owners once hosted Teddy Roosevelt).
It’s still locally owned and operated, which seems to be a point of pride for one of Portland’s last family-run funeral homes holding its own in the evolving death industry. And they’re staying hip with the trends. “We offer traditional and creative cremation services,” the website reads. “You can enhance a scattering ceremony with a balloon release, a harpist playing music, or decorate with photographs; whatever is meaningful to you.”
The Holman family’s last generation was unable to have children. So after Margaret Holman’s death in 2005, longtime employee and current president Dan Holmes acquired the business. His son Cameron—Holman’s general manager—recently led me on a tour of the fortress-like building. And let me tell you, it was weird.
There’s something deeply unsettling about entering a funeral home unattached to any recent death. As soon as I walked up Holman’s front steps, I realized that outside of writing this article, there were only a few reasons I’d ever visit: to pre-plan my own final arrangements, to make arrangements for the death of someone I love, or the event of my own death.
At first, Holman’s appears to be laid out like any other residence—there’s a foyer, a living room, and a dining room. But then you notice the irregularities—that the dining room is connected to a chapel, or that cream-colored films cover all of the windows, filtering outside light so it’s soft and muted. On the first floor there are also arrangement rooms where clients can meet with funeral directors.
Former bedrooms are now viewing rooms on the second floor. They have chairs, fireplaces, and casket stands where the beds should be. One room does have a bed—the slumber room, where bodies are posed as though they’d died right there, in this bed in Holman’s. Cameron Holmes told me it’s an old-fashioned custom that very few people request these days. The mansion’s former ballroom dominates the third floor, but now it’s Holman’s casket showroom. Upon entering, my jaw dropped with shock and macabre delight. Caskets of every variety line the ballroom’s massive perimeter—it looks like a flashy car dealership.
Walking down the hallways of Holman’s felt like tracing lines over something that hasn’t happened yet. But my visit was a reminder: There will always be more. Throughout the tour I swung between existential dread, as I role-played an experience that’s normally off-limits until a death strikes, and waves of calm, as I emotionally prepared for its arrival.
And that’s how to die.