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.
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 California Health & Safety 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.
If you are the executor of the estate, you should ask for at least ten certified copies. 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 need to order copies of a death certificate after the time of death has passed, visit the website of the California Department of Public Health. From the CDPH website, you can download a mail-in order form.
To order complete certified copies of a death certificate, you must provide a notarized 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 $21.
In California, there are two kinds of certified death certificates, called “certified 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 full certified copy of a death certificate, you must be:
For more details, see the Pamphlet for Certified Copies of Death Records, available from the California Department of Public Health website.
California law requires the funeral director to get the medical and health information from the physician and surgeon who last attended to the deceased person who is required to complete the medical certification 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 from examining the body. (California Health & Safety Code § 102795 and California Health & Safety Code § 102800.)
Embalming is a process in which blood is drained from the body and replaced with fluids that delay disintegration. It's rarely necessary, because refrigeration serves the same purpose.
In California, regulations require a body to be embalmed or refrigerated if final disposition will not occur within 24 hours. There is 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.
A casket is often the single greatest expense incurred after a death. The cost of a casket can range from about $500 to $20,000 or more for an elaborate design.
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. Federal law requires funeral homes to accept caskets that consumers have purchased from another source, such as an online retailer. You may also build your own casket.
Alkaline hydrolysis is a chemical process that reduces a body to components of liquid and bone. It is considered a greener alternative to cremation because it uses less energy than cremation and does not release matter into the atmosphere.
Alkaline hydrolysis was legalized in California in October 2017 when the governor signed AB-967 into law that established the process in the state and provided regulations for alkaline hydrolysis facilities. Section 7611.9 of the California Business and Professions Code defines alkaline hydrolysis as:
A process using heat or heat and applied pressure, water, and potassium hydroxide or sodium hydroxide in a hydrolysis chamber.
The law goes into effect on July 1, 2020, so there are not any funeral homes in California that currently offer the process. To find a provider of alkaline hydrolysis, you’ll have to look to one of the few states where the process is both legal and available to the public, such as Florida, Illinois, Maine, or Minnesota.
In California, bodies must be buried in established cemeteries. City or county authorities have the authority to establish and regulate burial grounds. (California Health & Safety 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 Laws on Storing and Scattering Ashes
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 website of the California Cemetery and Funeral Bureau.
Federal Rules on Scattering Ashes
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.
Scattering ashes by air. California doesn't have any laws on this, but 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.
For more information, including contact information for the EPA representative in California, see Burial of Human Remains at Sea on the EPA website.
To learn about the federal Funeral Rule, which protects consumers in all states, visit the website of the Federal Trade Commission.
For more information about funeral laws in California, see Making Funeral Arrangements in California.
To find out more about funerals and other final arrangements, see the Getting Your Affairs in Order section of Nolo.com.
Get It Together, by Melanie Cullen (Nolo) helps you gather and organize the essential details of your life for yourself and your family.