The staff at St. Rita Parish in Portland provided comfort to Christine Stewart, who lost her grandmother, mother and brother over the last five years. (Bob Kerns/Catholic Sentinel)
The staff at St. Rita Parish in Portland provided comfort to Christine Stewart, who lost her grandmother, mother and brother over the last five years. (Bob Kerns/Catholic Sentinel)
When it comes to burials, Catholic funerals in Western Oregon reflect a trend. Cremations have become common across the Archdiocese of Portland and at some parishes the norm. According to Tim Corbett, director of cemeteries for the archdiocese, about 45 percent of burials at Portland’s Catholic cemeteries are cremations.

Combining Catholic and non-Catholic burials statewide, Oregon is a leader in cremations. In its latest ranking, the Cremation Association of North America reports that Oregon has the third highest percentage of cremations at 74 percent, behind Nevada and Washington.

The Catholic Church began allowing cremations in 1963 and relaxed some restrictions in 1997. Even so, families often are unaware of church teachings on cremations. Confusion is exacerbated when combined with another trend: More children of deceased Catholics do not attend Mass and are, initially at least, uncomfortable with having a Catholic funeral.

Adjusting to these developments, parishes are seizing the opportunity to evangelize and are welcoming families by guiding them through the process of remembering and burying their loved ones.

“A lot of people are surprised that you’re not supposed to be scattering ashes,” said Ann Brophy, pastoral associate a Sacred Heart Parish in Medford. “Most folks are glad to learn what the Catholic teaching is on that.” Canon law says cremated remains should be treated with the same respect as an intact body and should not be divided but rather buried or entombed in a mausoleum or columbarium.

Corbett pointed out that “the Catholic funeral process is known to have a very excellent psychological value.”

Christine Stewart, a member of St. Rita Parish in Northeast Portland, felt that comfort while dealing with three difficult deaths.

The first was her 41-year-old brother, who died the day after Thanksgiving 2012 following years of drug abuse and alcoholism. His death had a profound impact on Stewart’s mother, who died the day after Christmas the following year. Then, after living a full life, Stewart’s grandmother died in April 2017. Funeral arrangements were complicated by deep and painful rifts within Stewart’s extended family.

While each death was trying in its own way, Stewart was guided through each funeral by pastoral administrator Lisa Porter. Stewart credits Porter as the reason things went so well — helping the family select music and readings and work their way through the necessary paperwork. In the end, Stewart said the one thing that got her through all three was knowing that “they’re much happier now than where they were. I’m sure.”

When Kathy McDonnell’s 96-year-old father died, she benefitted from the forethought of Franciscan Father Ben Innes, who was pastor at Southeast Portland’s Ascension Parish a decade ago. During one homily, he instructed churchgoers to name their favorite hymns and select the readings they’d like for their funerals. McDonnell’s father, a retired engineer who liked things organized, did just that. McDonnell said that preplanning allowed her to focus on family and memories and not so much on details of his funeral. She suggested that people talk to their parents. “It may be a hard conversation, but it will ensure their wishes are met.”

Mary Armosino and her husband moved to the Medford area from Northern California about two years ago and joined Sacred Heart. Recently, on a sunny autumn afternoon, she sat on a hillside bench at Eagle Point National Cemetery and reflected on her husband’s death. In November 2016, the two Navy veterans took a walk through the cemetery and agreed that this was where they wanted to be buried. A few weeks later, while stringing up Christmas lights, he suffered a burst aneurysm and was rushed to a hospital where he died the next morning.

The couple regularly attended daily Mass, so on leaving the hospital, it seemed only natural to Armosino that she head to the church again that morning. She was met by other regulars who asked what was wrong. Almost immediately, Bertha Dellapenta stepped forward and offered to help her arrange the funeral.

Dellapenta is one of 15 parishioners who organize the 60 or so funerals at Sacred Heart each year. Brophy, the pastoral associate, says the well-trained teams help families through each step of the process and make sure all details are covered. They also follow up by sending bereavement cards at key times over the following year.

Brophy said the ministry can be a “doorway to evangelizing through the care and love you show people.” The whole experience deepened Armosino’s appreciation for the parish. “Sacred Heart is just full of the Spirit,” she said. “When we moved here, we stepped into a very special place.”

Alternately, lack of planning and miscommunication between generations can cause pain and confusion. Rebecca Tjaarda, a funeral director at Portland’s Mount Scott Funeral Home, said the hardest thing for funeral directors is “when someone passes away suddenly and their family has to come in here and we sit down at the table and we say, ‘Let’s start from the beginning... Does your loved one want to be buried or cremated?’ And a lot of times they’ll just look at us and say, ‘I have no idea. We never talked about that.’”

Tjaarda said there have been times when a parent was active in his or her Catholic faith but the surviving children were not. Because of lack of communication, the parent was buried without a funeral Mass.

“Have that conversation with your family. Let them know,” Tjaarda said. “It’s a gift.”