If you are interested in holding a home funeral for a loved one who has died, you'll need to be aware of the laws that apply. Here is an overview of the rules that govern home funerals in California.
In all states, it is legal to have your loved one's body at home after they die. California has no law requiring that a licensed funeral director be involved in making or carrying out final arrangements.
California law determines who has the right to make final decisions about a person's body and funeral services.
This right and responsibility goes to the following people, in order:
You can give the job of making your final arrangements to a person who is not on the list, but you must do so in writing. (California Health and Safety Codes § 7100 and §7100.1.) To avoid confusion, it's best to make an advance directive and give your health care agent explicit permission to carry out your wishes.
For more information about making an advance directive in California, see California Living Wills and Advance Health Care Directives.
Note that, if you are in the military, you may name the person who will carry out your final wishes in the Record of Emergency Data provided by the Department of Defense.
Who pays for your funeral arrangements? You can either pay for your plans before you die, or you can set aside money for your survivors to use for this purpose. If you don't do either of these things, and there's not enough money in your estate to pay for funeral goods and services, your survivors must cover the costs.
Embalming is almost never required. In California, a body must be embalmed if it is to be transported by a common carrier (California Health & Safety Code § 7355 (2018)), but the Funeral Consumers Alliance makes a good argument that this law is both unenforced and unenforceable.
Refrigeration or dry ice can usually preserve a body for a short time. There are resources available to help you learn to prepare a body at home for burial or cremation. The website of the National Home Funeral Alliance is a good place to start.
If the person died of a contagious disease, you should consult a doctor.
If you will not be using a funeral director, you must complete and file the death certificate yourself. California law requires you to file the death certificate with the local registrar of births and deaths within eight calendar days of the death and before you dispose of the remains. (California Health & Safety Code § 102775 (2018).)
The doctor who last attended the deceased person must sign the death certificate within 15 hours, stating the date, time, and cause of death. (California Health & Safety Code §§ 102795 & 102800 (2018).)
In California, doctors, hospitals, and funeral directors use an electronic system for filing death certificates. Some vital records offices can provide you with a paper alternative, while at other offices you will have to ask for help to use the electronic system. If the office is not prepared to help you with this process, be ready to advocate for your right to file on your own.
You will need certified copies of the death certificate to carry out other tasks after the death, such as getting a permit to transport the body to the place of burial or cremation. You may be able to file the death certificate and get certified copies on the same day. If not, you will have to make a return trip to pick up the copies. Be prepared to pay a small fee for each copy.
You must obtain a permit before disposing of human remains. (California Health & Safety Code § 103050 (2018).) No cemetery or crematory will accept a body without this permit. In California, the permit is called a "Permit for Disposition" or "Burial Permit." The cost is about $12.
You can request the disposition permit from the registrar's office at the time you file the death certificate. After you have the permit, you may transport the body yourself.
In California, a body must be buried in an established cemetery. The power to establish places for burial or entombment rests with city or county authorities. (California Health & Safety Code § 8115 (2018).) Check with the municipal or county zoning department to find out whether you can establish a cemetery for home burial; it may be possible if you live in a rural area.
Some crematories require that you use a funeral director to arrange cremation. If you don't want to use a funeral director, make sure the crematory is willing to accept the body directly from the family. No additional permit is required before cremation.
For more information about cremation, including information on scattering ashes, see Burial & Cremation Laws in California.
Even the most staunch home funeral advocates know that learning to care for one's own dead can be difficult, especially during a time of grief. If you need help, there are people available to coach you through this process. You can find local guides, consultants, and other resources by visiting the website of the National Home Funeral Alliance. The book Final Rights, by Joshua Slocum and Lisa Carlson, also offers extensive information on the subject.
For more information about final arrangements and documenting your final wishes in advance, see Nolo's section on Getting Your Affairs in Order.