Does Sisters need a cemetery?


Last updated 1/9/2024 at 9:48am

Photo by Bill Bartlett

Camp Polk Pioneer Cemetery.

As the population grows in Sisters Country that question comes up more frequently I find. And with our older population – median age in Sisters is just under 50, whereas Oregon as a whole it is just under 40 – it seems to be a pertinent question.

We have a cemetery, in fact. Two to be precise. One most everybody knows about - the Camp Polk Cemetery - is also known as Pioneer Cemetery and has been around since 1880.

Turns out, nobody owns the place. At least no person or entity is listed in county records. No taxes are assessed. Maintenance is 100 percent volunteer. But don't assume you or your loved ones can be buried there in spite of there being no formal management. The plots are all taken - as in 'possession is 9/10ths of the law' taken.

The other burial spot is at Church of the Transfiguration where burial is limited to members only. It's not a traditional cemetery with buried caskets and headstones in a field. Only cremains, the remains of somebody cremated, can be accommodated either in their columbarium or sacred grounds.

A columbarium, also called a cinerarium, is a structure for the reverential and usually public storage of funerary urns holding cremains of the dead. The term comes from the Latin 'columba' and originally solely referred to compartmentalized housing for doves and pigeons, also called dovecotes.

The Transfiguration columbarium has 54 niches and more than one cremains can be placed in a niche, such as spouses or siblings, even an entire family. Thirteen are already spoken for. The sacred ground is a small plot where cremains are commingled with others. Room for cremains in the sacred ground is virtually limitless.

I asked Community Development Director Scott Woodford if in any of the multitude of planning or visioning documents the city prepares, has consideration been given for a municipal cemetery?

"Not that I've ever come across or heard discussed since I've been here," he said. But Kerry Prosser, (assistant city manager) or Paul Bertagna, (public works director) might know as they've been around longer."

Both replied in the negative.

A look at similar-sized cities to Sisters reveals that Bandon has eight, Jacksonville and La Pine each have three, and Lakeview has four. Sublimity counts seven. Maybe the name is more desirable for burial. Included in these totals are pioneer, municipal, church and private operations.

Sisters, at only 1.88 square miles, has negligible options for a municipal cemetery. But in numerous cases cities own cemeteries beyond their borders.

According to the National Funeral Directors Association, cremation was chosen by 60.5 percent of those who died in 2023 and 34.5 percent chose burial. They don't account for the remaining five percent. The same Association shows only a $900 savings for cremation versus burial, thus cost is not the primary driver in the growing popularity of cremation.

Maybe the answer to the question if Sisters needs a formal cemetery can be found in numerous reports indicating that placing ashes in a cemetery is only the fourth most common venue.

Scattering ashes on private property is the first choice, followed by letting ashes flow into a river, stream, lake or the ocean. Indeed I could name a dozen friends who fully intend to have their ashes scattered in the Metolius. Two couples even have that stipulated in their will and estate documents.

Next comes mountain and hill tops. Caution: be sure ashes are scattered with the wind direction. Yes, your ashes can be scattered in National Parks, another popular choice.

And the fifth most popular choice - wait for it - sporting venues. Although the reality is that there are few, very few, options for this choice. However, many a golfer is known to be scattered over his or her favorite fairway.

It being Oregon, it is not surprising to see the rise in Green Burials. A green burial is similar to a normal burial except no embalming fluids or toxic chemicals of any kind are used. Rather than using a gas-guzzling machine to dig the grave, the green burial ground staff-or even your loved ones themselves-dig the grave by hand.

To allow the body to decompose in a natural way, no cement burial vault is used, and only caskets made from biodegradable materials, such as wicker, are used. Alternatively, the casket can be eliminated altogether, and the body can simply be buried in a cloth shroud. Many green burial grounds are used as animal and plant conservation sites.

While it has a tinge of fringe, green burial might be the first step into Sisters having a municipal cemetery. As Sisters looks more and more like Bend, maybe having a cemetery nearby should be on the drawing board.


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