Each state has laws affecting what happens to a body after death. For example, most states regulate embalming, burial or cremation, scattering ashes, and how to get a death certificate. Here are some answers to common questions about these matters in California.
Filing the death certificate. In California, a death certificate must be filed with the local registrar within eight days of the death and before the body is buried or cremated. (See Cal. Health & Saf. Code § 102775.) The easiest way to get copies of a death certificate is to ask the person or organization that files the certificate to order them for you at the time of the death; usually this will be a funeral home, mortuary, or crematory.
Getting copies of the death certificate. You may need to obtain copies of a death certificate for a number of reasons. You might simply want a copy for your personal records or, if you are in charge of wrapping up the deceased person's affairs, you may require multiple official copies to carry out your job. You will need to submit a certified copy of the death certificate each time you claim property or benefits that belonged to the deceased person, including life insurance proceeds, Social Security benefits, payable on death accounts, veterans benefits, and many others.
If you are the executor of the estate, you should ask for at least 10 certified copies. You'll need to submit a certified copy of the death certificate each time you claim property or benefits that belonged to the deceased person, including life insurance proceeds, Social Security benefits, payable-on-death accounts, veterans benefits, and many others.
If you need to order copies of a death certificate after some time has passed, you can order one from the California Department of Public Health—Vital Records. From the CDPH website, you can either download a mail-in order form or submit a request online. To order certified authorized copies of a death certificate, you must provide a notarized sworn statement declaring that you are legally entitled to the document. (See below for more on who can order death certificates.) The statement you need is included with the downloadable application form.
Each certified copy of a California death certificate costs $24.
In California, there are two kinds of certified death certificates, called "certified authorized copies" and "certified informational copies." Anyone can obtain a certified informational copy, which cannot legally be used to establish the identity of the person named in the death certificate.
To order a certified authorized copy of a death certificate, you must be:
For more details, see How to Obtain a Certified Copy of a Death Record, available from the California Department of Public Health.
California law requires the physician and surgeon who last attended to the deceased person to complete the medical and time of death portion of the death certificate and return it to the funeral director within 15 hours of the death. If the death was due to natural causes, the coroner investigates the death and provides the medical certification to the funeral director within three days after examining the body. (Cal. Health & Saf. Code §§ 102795 and 102800.)
Embalming is a process in which blood is drained from the body and replaced with fluids that delay disintegration. Though it's still a common procedure, embalming is rarely necessary; refrigeration serves the same purpose.
In California, except in limited circumstances, embalming is not required. California regulations do, however, require a body to be either embalmed or refrigerated if final disposition will not occur within 24 hours. There's an exception for families conducting home funerals.
In addition, if a body is to be shipped by common carrier—such as an airplane—it must be embalmed. If embalming is not possible, the body must be sealed in an approved container. (Cal. Health & Saf. Code § 7355.)
For more information, see the website of the California Cemetery and Funeral Bureau's Consumer Guide to Funeral and Cemetery Purchases.
A casket is often the single greatest expense incurred after a death. The average cost of a casket is more than $2,000, and the price can run into the $10,000-$20,000 range for more elaborate designs and expensive materials. Whether due to the cost or for other reasons, some people prefer to forgo a casket altogether.
Burial. No law requires a casket for burial. However, you should check with the cemetery; it may have rules requiring a certain type of container.
Cremation. No law requires a casket for cremation. On the contrary, federal law requires a funeral home or crematory to inform you that you may use an alternative container, and to make such containers available to you. An alternative container may be made of unfinished wood, pressed wood, fiberboard, or cardboard.
No. Although funeral homes may sometimes be very pushy about getting you to buy caskets from them, federal law requires funeral homes to accept caskets that consumers have purchased from another source, such as an online retailer. (Learn more about your consumer rights under the FTC Funeral Rule.) You may also build your own casket, if you prefer.
Alkaline hydrolysis (more informally called "water cremation," "flameless cremation," "aquamation," and many other terms) is a chemical process that reduces a body to components of liquid and bone. It's considered a greener alternative to cremation because it uses less energy than cremation and does not release matter into the atmosphere.
Alkaline hydrolysis was recognized in California in October 2017, when the California Health and Safety Code was amended. It now includes this definition:
"Alkaline hydrolysis" is a process using heat or heat and applied pressure, water, and potassium hydroxide or sodium hydroxide in a hydrolysis chamber.
(Cal. Health & Saf. Code § 7010.1) The California Business & Professions Code also requires hydrolysis facilities to be licensed and follow other rules. (See Cal. Bus. & Prof. Code §§ 7639 and following.) The law went into effect on July 1, 2020, so funeral homes in California are still catching up. While it is possible now to find a crematory in California that offers this option, you might have to travel some distance.
If you're interested in this option for yourself, you may want to explore pre-planning your final arrangements. Water cremation tends to cost a little more than traditional cremation. (For example, see this 2023 NPR interview on water cremation in which one funeral home prices its water cremation service at $1,000 more than traditional cremation.)
In California, bodies must be buried in established cemeteries. City or county authorities have the authority to establish and regulate burial grounds. (Cal. Health & Saf. Code § 8115.) If you want to bury a body on private land, check with the municipal or county zoning department to find out whether you can establish a family cemetery; it may be possible if you live in a rural area.
If you want to keep or scatter cremated ashes in California, you should be aware of the following state and federal rules.
California's laws about dealing with ashes are the strictest in the nation. While many people let common sense and good judgment be their guides—scattering ashes under a "don't ask, don't tell" policy—it's wise to know the state laws.
California allows you to dispose of cremated remains by:
For more information, see the California Cemetery and Funeral Bureau's Consumer Guide.
The following guidelines apply if you want to scatter ashes on federal land or at sea.
Scattering ashes on federal land. Officially, you should request permission before scattering ashes on federal land. However, you will probably encounter no resistance if you conduct the scattering ceremony quietly and keep the ashes well away from trails, roads, facilities, and waterways. You can find guidelines for scattering ashes on the websites for some national parks. For more information, begin your search at the website of the National Park Service.
Scattering ashes at sea. The federal Clean Water Act requires that cremated remains be scattered at least three nautical miles from land. If the container will not easily decompose, you must dispose of it separately. The EPA does not permit scattering at beaches or in wading pools by the sea. Finally, you must notify the EPA within 30 days of scattering ashes at sea.
The Clean Water Act also governs scattering in inland waters such as rivers or lakes. For inland water burial, you may be legally required to obtain a permit from the state agency that manages the waterway.
For more information, including contact information for the EPA representative in California, see the EPA's page on Burial at Sea.
Scattering ashes by air. Federal law prohibits dropping any objects that might injure people or harm property. The U.S. government does not consider cremains to be hazardous material. So all should be well as long as you remove the ashes from their container before scattering. But note that in California, "cremated remains disposers" also must abide by a few additional rules, such as posting their pilot license at their place of business.
To learn about the federal rule on funerals, which protects consumers in all states, visit the FTC's Funeral Rule page.
For more information about funeral laws in California, see California Home Funeral Laws.
To find out more about funerals and other final arrangements, see Nolo's section on Getting Your Affairs in Order.
Get It Together, by Melanie Cullen (Nolo), helps you gather and organize the essential details of your life for yourself and your family.