Nearly a decade ago, the saga of Justin Burkhart’s disappearance came to an end as the body of the 28-year-old wine steward and Central Oregon Community College student was found in the Deschutes River in Bend. He’s believed to have drowned the night he went missing 10 months earlier.
Throughout the search for him, Burkhart’s mother, Eloisa Chavez, was his most visible advocate — leading search and memorial efforts, hiring a private investigator and critiquing the official investigation.
She was quoted often in the media, describing the pain of uncertainty and the depth of her sense of loss.
“It’s just a daily, minute-to-minute thing, every day, something new coming up that I need to work on,” she told The Bulletin in November 2009. “I’ve never gone a week without talking to my son. He’s my best friend and my only child, and it’s really hard.”
On Jan. 18, Eloisa Chavez was found dead in her home.
Friday in Deschutes County Circuit Court, Justin Burkhart’s father took legal action to prevent Chavez’s relatives from carrying out a plan to combine the ashes of the mother and son and scatter them at Tumalo Falls.
Judge Wells B. Ashby granted a temporary restraining order that states Chavez’s estate may not intermingle or dump the remains, nor leave the state with them, until the matter is resolved in court.
Justin Drew Burkhart was born on May 3, 1981. His father, Randy Burkhart, lives in Culver. Chavez lived in Bend.
It’s not clear from court filings when the two separated, but in 1984, Chavez sued Randy Burkhart for child support under her maiden name, having previously used “Burkhart.”
Randy Burkhart’s filing states he “maintained a relationship” with his son throughout his life.
On the night of July 31, 2009, after helping close down the wine bar where he worked, Justin Burkhart met up with friends and drank at downtown bars until last call.
He and four friends returned to his apartment and continued drinking on his front porch until about 3:30 a.m. As his friends were leaving, he told them he was going to look for something to eat.
Friends who spotted him at the west end of the Drake Park footbridge are believed to be the last people to see him alive.
Michael Dockery, one of Randy Burkhart’s attorneys, appeared Friday in a Deschutes County Circuit courtroom seeking the order. The listed defendants — Chavez’s mother, sister and nephew — did not appear, nor did an attorney.
Dockery presented the judge with an email he received that morning from Chavez’s nephew, Jason Gonzalez, in which he describes the family’s plans and their belief in Chavez’s authority to make directives regarding her son’s ashes.
Dockery, however, said the mixing and scattering would violate Randy Burkhart’s Catholic beliefs. Beyond that, Dockery wrote in his brief, Justin Burkhart’s ashes aren’t the property of Chavez’s relatives.
Dockery said Randy Burkhart arranged and paid for his son’s cremation. He received the ashes from the crematorium, and brought them to the memorial service, where he “entrusted” them to Chavez.
There was no formal agreement about where the final resting place would be.
“Defendants’ threatened conduct is unlawful because Plaintiff is the true and rightful owner of Justin’s remains and has a legal right to immediate possession of same,” Dockery wrote in court documents.
The brief states the remains are at Chavez’s home.
The Catholic Church lifted its prohibition against cremation in 1963, but it still recommends church members be buried, according to Catholic Answers.
Cremated remains are today often buried at Catholic cemeteries despite the church not considering cremation a form of Christian burial, according to Catholic cemetery director Ipo Ross.
Ross compared cremation to “sticking a body in a blender,” and commingling two people’s ashes, to “sticking two bodies in a blender.”
“The way the Catholic Church views bodies is that they are the temple of the Holy Spirit where, when that person was alive, God dwelled,” said Ross, who manages Mt. Calvary Catholic Cemetery in Klamath Falls.
Even if Chavez’s family prevails in court, they would be “strongly discouraged” from scattering the ashes at Tumalo Falls, according to Kassidy Kern, publics affairs specialist for the Deschutes National Forest.
“We would encourage people to remember that these are public lands, and they belong to every citizen of the United States,” she said.
— Reporter: 541-383-0325, firstname.lastname@example.org